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Small community in Northern Kenya receives FAO achievement award for forest conservation

The Kirisia community from Samburu in Northern Kenya is rewriting its negative historical narrative and putting Samburu on the global map through its forest conservation programme.

By Jackson Okata, bird Story Agency

As the world celebrated World Food Day on October 14 2022, a small Kenyan village was making headlines on the sidelines of the event in Rome, Italy.

The Kirisia community from Samburu county, 400 kilometres north of Nairobi, received a global award for its sustainable efforts in restoring a critical forest and water tower on its deathbed due to human settlement.

Through the Kirisia Community Forest Association(CFA), the community received the achievement award from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

The award was launched in 2020 to recognise individuals, communities and institutions with outstanding performance in the efficient execution of programmes related to FAO's work. It focuses on fisheries, forestry, climate, land and water, and animal and plant health sectors.

"I cannot express my excitement and that of our members for this outstanding achievement. As the Samburu indigenous community, Kirisia forest is a critical ecosystem that has supported the livelihoods and cultural heritage of the Samburu indigenous community for generations," said Kirisia CFA chairman Douglas Leboiyare.

Leiboiyare says the award is a statement to the world that "good things can also come out of Samburu."

"For decades we have been known for all the bad things like cattle rustling and fighting but we want the whole world to know that the pastoralist communities are embracing change," he said.

The Kirisia Community Forest Association took the lead in restoring the forest with the support of FAO, Global Environment Facility (GEF), Kenya Forestry Service, the County Government of Samburu, and the Green Belt Movement.

Leboiyare says excessive and uncoordinated livestock grazing, charcoal burning and logging had for decades threatened the existence of the forest, which supports over 10,000 households.

"We destroyed the forest ecosystem out of ignorance as a community and we bore the brunt of it for so long," Leboiyare explained.

In 2019, 10,000 illegal settlers who had occupied the forest for more than three decades started leaving voluntarily. And on December 30, 2019, the community kicked off the Kirisia forest restoration project by planting the first 11,000 seedlings.

The Chief Conservator of Forests says that 30,000ha of Kirisia Forest had already been destroyed when the restoration began. Between 1973 and 2015, the forest lost 20 per cent of its tree cover.

Members o f the Kirisia community prepare a section of the Kirisia forest for tree planting. Photo Credits : FAO,Kenya

The Kirisia Community has restored 11,000 out of the 30,000 hectares of the destroyed forest, with 80,000 tree seedlings planted since 2019.

Kenya water towers head of communication Hillary Sang attributes the project's success to community sensitisation on the importance of conserving the forest for their benefit.

"Nobody was evicted from the forest by force, the process was voluntary and peaceful. Pressure for dwellers to leave the forest came from the residents themselves", said Sang.

Joceline Thembu, an environmental expert involved in the project, says keeping politics out of the project was critical to its success.

Samburu county forest Conservator Charles Ochieng says community scouts have been key to the initiative's success through regular patrols within the forest.

"We have plans of scaling up tree planting to realise our target of 450,000 new tree seedlings," said Ochieng.

At the start of the project, the Kenya Water Towers had pledged 50,000 seedlings, Kenya Forest Service 300,000 seedlings and Kenya Forestry Research 100,000 seedlings towards the project.

Through the forest restoration project, the community has been allowed to sustainably maintain the right to use the forest.

The community members are now allowed to practice agroforestry, beekeeping and even grazing within the forest. At least 1300 community members are engaged in controlled beekeeping inside the forest under the Samburu Beekeepers Cooperative Society.

John Lelesit, chairman of the Samburu bee keepers' society, says the community, with their over 400 hives in the forest, can generate income from selling honey, something he admits has changed the economic fortunes of those involved.

Lelesit adds that honey production, forest farming, regeneration of water springs, enhanced livestock fodder and fruit farming has enhanced the community's food and nutrition security.

"Our young warriors are busy inside the forest keeping bees and farming. They have no time for war or cattle rustling and this has put an end to communal conflicts which caused many deaths and destruction of property," he said.

Mariana Kelporen, a mother of six, says the forest restoration has given them peace as women and helped keep their husbands at home.

"We not only have food for our children but we also have our husbands at home. Initially, they would go for days looking for cattle to steal or following stolen cattle and some would never return," she said.


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