It was a beautiful day in Embu County, Kenya, just south of the equator.
Foggy, cool, and with a persistent drizzle that sometimes turned into steady rain. Perfect for tree planting.
I was visiting the Mt Kenya Forest Landscape Restoration project – Phase 1 of ITF’s Centenary Campaign, 20 Million Trees for Kenya’s Forests, with our long-term partner Mount Kenya Environmental Conservation (or MKEC). Our colleagues Paulino Mugendi, Augustine Njeru, Julian Wanja and Philip Gitonga of MKEC and Esther Wawira Nyaga, a local farmer, accompanied me.
We drove up steep muddy roads. People were busy planting or tending their crops – tea, coffee, bananas, maize, beans, arrowroots, yams, fruit trees and vegetables. Lorries were taking freshly picked tea, and loads of firewood, to the big tea factory at Kathangariri. Tea factories rely on firewood to cure the tea leaves.
We visited the tree nurseries where Women Groups and Self-Help Groups have been raising seedlings for almost a year as part of the 20 Million Trees campaign. Tractors take the seedlings that are ready for planting up to the forest, while local farmers collect the young trees they need to plant on their farms. Smaller seedlings will remain in the nurseries to grow on for the next season: April 2017.
An intensively cultivated landscape – and a need for more trees
At a casual glance one of the striking things about this intensively cultivated landscape – compared with farmland in Europe for example – is that there are lots of trees: on boundaries and roads, around homesteads or scattered amongst other crops. Yet farmers all agree that they need more – for fuel wood and fodder, fruits and timber, for soil health and fertility, yes – but also because they know that the more diverse their farms are in species, structure and products, the more resilient they will be as sources of livelihood. Every farmer makes their own choice of species to plant, adding to the diversity and resilience of the landscape as a whole.
Further up, the landscape is dominated by a single crop – tea. Then we reach the boundary of the forest, marked with an electrified fence, which keeps (very) large wildlife – elephants and buffalo – out of the farms, while also sometimes making it awkward for people to get into the forest. But there are always people in the forest. In fact the farming system and local livelihoods depend on the forest. The forest subsidises the farms with key products like fuel wood and fodder, whilst also helping to ensure regular rainfall and the flow of water in many streams.
Magaca, a large gap in the forest
Beyond the forest boundary the road was impassable. We were joined by the local Forest Guard and walked through the forest and crossed a river. Suddenly the forest opens out into a huge clearing. This is Magaca, the largest gap in the forest on the east side of Mount Kenya. Cleared for commercial plantations and cultivated for crops, the forest never recovered, and is now a grassland with patches of invasive shrubs. We met three women carrying heavy loads of firewood from the forest, and others cutting fodder grasses for their cows.
And then we reached the planting site. 125 local farmers joined the MKEC team to plant 30,000 indigenous trees at Magaca since the rains started two weeks ago. And they aim to plant another 20,000 more before the rains end. The trees are planted 2 to 3 metres apart, working around natural obstacles and places where the shrub cover is too dense – about 1,000 trees per hectare. MKEC aims to cover 50 hectares this season, with plenty more to be planted next April. A site assessment with our partner Botanic Gardens Conservation International helped ensure that the species selected are those best suited to the area and with the best prospects to contribute to rapid recovery of the forest ecosystem.
And here they are: seedlings of Syzygium, Podocarpus, Prunus, Vitex and other species native to the area. The seedlings will need weeding and care for at least a year to help them grow. It is only a start, but a very promising one.
Farms and Forest – growing together, hand in hand
Back on the farm Esther (who is a self-taught tree planting expert) tells us about the trees she plans to plant on her farm this year. Although she has only half an acre she can always fit more trees. She plans to plant rows of Grevillea and Markhamia for timber, firewood and soil improvement and could under plant them with the Calliandra which will provide fodder to feed her cow. She is a wonderful local leader, a stalwart tree planter, and advises all her neighbours to follow her example.
This December, International Tree Foundation is running a crowdfunding campaign to provide 20,000 trees for farmers like Esther. You can watch Esther talking about the project here: https://igg.me/at/farmsandforest
Paul Laird, Programmes Manager. November 2016