Landscape degradation in Kenya
Africa faces a big deforestation challenge. Between 2010 and 2020, 3.94 million ha of forest were lost annually. The highest yearly loss on record. And with only 7% forest cover, Kenya is one of the least-forested countries in Africa.
According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), deforestation in Kenya’s Water Towers deprives our economy of six billion shillings a year and threatens more than 70% of the country’s water supply. UNEP data also tells us that Kenya’s water towers and forests contribute more than 3.6% to GDP. The economic benefits of forest ecosystem services are more than four times higher than the short-term gains of deforestation.
Publically, Kenya is committed to restoring 5.1 million ha of degraded landscapes by 2022. By 2030, greenhouse gas emissions from the forest sector should be 50% less than today, and land degradation neutrality should have been reached by then too. Despite these commitments and many forest restoration initiatives, deforestation and forest degradation still happens at an alarming rate.
In the recent past we’ve lost great swathes of our biodiversity, and many native trees are extinct. More are threatened. Rivers that used to be permanent are now seasonal or have dried up. And every year erosion results in the loss of millions of cubic metres of soil, shrinking agricultural productivity and threatening food sovereignty for thousands of communities. Women, in particular, often now need to travel many kilometres for water and fuelwood, reducing their time available for education and other work.
How to restore our landscape
Landscape restoration will succeed if and when the benefits reach the people most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as rural communities. If Kenyan landscape restoration is to succeed, then it needs to work to the following principles.
1. Cooperate and plan
Today, restoration stakeholders don’t cooperate. Landowners, farmers, national and subnational governments, scientists, the private sector, and NGOs are all running in their own direction with little collaboration. We need a nationally coordinated effort with a common agenda. A mass restoration movement.
Currently, this goes against the traditional wisdom of many NGOs and government agencies, accustomed as they are to waving their own flags as high as they can. When it comes to restoration, competition is a problem. It would be much more effective if we worked together, with local communities at the centre of all interventions.
2. Increase tree diversity
Progress on preventing the extinction of threatened species has been slow. Despite the huge interest in tree planting in Kenya, most of the trees planted are exotic species and only a small share are native. Collaborative efforts and shifting investment to Kenya’s native and threatened trees, can help ensure Kenya’s tree diversity is secure for the long-term.
3. Gender plays a key part in successful restoration
Studies show that restoration initiatives impact women and men’s rights and wellbeing as well as relations between men and women in different ways. Research also shows that women tend to make better natural resource management decisions when they are included in conservation practices and when they receive the skills and training to inform their efforts.
Despite the important role that women can and do play in landscape restoration, gender integration remain a complex goal. Inadequate budgets for gender mainstreaming coupled with limited staff training in gender issues is slowing progress. As is the limited numbers of women in leadership of forest projects to articulate women’s needs and desires in the forest sector. Gender insensitivity by policy makers and professionals in the forest sector remains hard to change.
Women in Kenya contribute up to 80% of the labour required for food production, yet women are not empowered as decision makers regarding the optimal use of these lands. Approximately 75% of this rural population derives their livelihood from agriculture. It is therefore critical that all landscape restoration initiatives:
- Solicit the inputs from both women and men in order to ensure the restoration initiatives are aligned with community members’ development priorities and enhance their wellbeing.
- Seek the consent of both men and women when implementing activities on their lands.
- Each planned restoration initiative conducts a context-specific gender analysis.
Ensuring restoration activities generate financial benefits to community members is critical for incentivizing continued participation. As financial benefits from certain restoration options can take a long time to materialize, providing alternative livelihood options or income sources is critical for allowing community members to absorb financial and/or labour costs incurred by restoration.
4. Get restoration financing to the right people
Restoration finance mechanisms are difficult and expensive to access. Instead, Funds are usually invested far away from the communities who do the heavy lifting and where restoration action happens.
Financing regimes need to be accessible to grassroots communities. Which does not mean a lack of rigor, rather that restoration finance rules should adapt to the rural context, rather than apply procedures designed for affluent urban settings.
Restoration finance should also be long term. Currently much of the finance available, particularly in the form of grants and loans, is short term, i.e. one to three years. Planning and executing effective restoration at scale can take at least a five years, including tree care for at least three years after planting. This is more time than most grants allow
5. Put communities at the centre of restoration
It is critical that all restoration initiatives involve communities at every stage. Community input and consent ensure that restoration initiatives are aligned with community members’ priorities and wellbeing. In other words, that they are sustainable.
Some of the most effective restoration work is happening in the grassroots, far away from the negotiation tables. So restoration finance must facilitate community engagement, and create opportunities for employment and genuine involvement across energy, agriculture and agroforestry sectors, for example. Effective restoration places local communities at the centre.
6. Effective monitoring and evaluation requires technology and people
It’s critical to have a good national monitoring and evaluation (M&E) systems. Today, technology makes effective M&E of restoration projects quite easy. Many institutions including Environmental Systems Research Institute and Crowther Lab have developed remote sensing and mapping tools. And we at ITF rely on technology for planning and prioritizing areas for restoration. But, tools are not enough – participatory methods and evaluations on the ground are critical too. Remote sensing and on the ground evaluations complement each other.
If donors, NGOs, politicians and other stakeholders embrace these principles, then degraded landscapes can be restored, and quickly. Like many countries, Kenya can improve livelihoods, increase the supply of water for domestic, industrial and irrigated agriculture, conserve biodiversity, and maximise environmental and social resilience to climate changes. But, there is no time to wait.
Teresa Gintonga is ITF Kenya Programme Manager.