Scientists say protecting forests is one of the cheapest and most effective ways to curb climate change

Surrounded by tall, spindly trees in western Kenya’s Uplands Forest, Margret Njoki and her daughter dig up a row of potatoes, their hands moving rhythmically in time with one another. Along with the plot Njoki cultivates at home in the nearby town of Lari, this quarter acre (0.1 hectare) of forest land she leases from the government means she can double her yield of kale and potatoes.

In return, she agreed to plant and raise the trees growing among her crops, in a national scheme designed to curb illegal logging while giving farmers living near protected forests an alternative source of income.

“If it were not for this land I was allocated, I would be seriously struggling to raise my three kids since I am single,” said Njoki, adding she no longer has to buy vegetables from other farmers to stock her market stand. “Now I can comfortably pay my children’s school fees and I sell vegetables from my own farm, thus increasing my profits.”

While other countries fight to keep farmers out of their forests, Kenya sees small-scale farming on forest land as an essential pillar of its commitment to have 10 per cent of the country  covered with trees by the end of this year. Just over 7 per cent of Kenya is forested, and in its budget, announced on April 7, the government said it would allocate Sh10 billion ($87 million) for forest conservation over the next financial year. 

Farmers working in forests act as a deterrent to illegal loggers, say forest authorities. And because communities make extra money from their forest plots, they are less likely to collude with loggers targeting protected indigenous trees. As a result, some authorities say they have seen a big drop in illegal logging – including Isaac Waweru, forest station manager for Uplands Forest, who said unauthorised tree-cutting in the Lari area has fallen by half over the past five years.

“Most of the logging was done in collaboration with communities living near the forest, since they knew the terrain well,” he said. “But when we give community members a piece of fertile forest (to cultivate), they can’t risk being thrown out by aiding illegal logging. In fact, they have turned into defenders of the forest.”

Scientists say protecting forests is one of the cheapest and most effective ways to curb climate change because trees suck from the atmosphere carbon dioxide, the main gas heating up the planet. But some critics of Kenya’s community conservation scheme say limitations on what can be grown in forests and for how long makes the programme unfair to farmers.

The government also needs to go further in educating farmers on the benefits of tree conservation, so they buy into the programme fully, said Dominic Walubengo, director of the Nairobi-based Forest Action Network (FAN). “Before giving farmers land to till, they should be sensitised on why they are being allowed into the forest, why is it important for them to adequately tend to the trees, to give them a sense of belonging,” he said.

According to the most recent government estimates, Kenya loses about 12,000 of its 4.6 million hectares of forest land each year due to a combination of rising demand for wood fuel and charcoal, a growing population, the spread of infrastructure and the conversion of forest into commercial farmland.

Want to get latest farming tips and videos?
Join Us