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Encroachers in Mau forest are a happy lot over the return of shamba system

A cleared section at Kiptunga Forest in the Mau Forest complex on September 26, 2022. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

From a distance, it looks like heaps of trash beneath towering indigenous trees in Kiptunga forest, but up close, the tens of ‘heaps’ are makeshift homes that host hundreds of people practicing the Shamba System.

The mushrooming makeshift huts as per their structure, look hideous - they are constructed deep in what looks like a hollow with a low roof covered in polythene and heaped with soil and grass to pass for thrash.

“Most of us live in such makeshift houses. There are no wild animals and they are warm,” John Karanja tells us.

A top an uphill spot, swathes of acres under the Shamba System boast lush crops and a few trees. It also hosts tens of mushrooming make-shift houses where a number of those farming live in. 

While the Shamba system is supposed to benefit communities living adjacent to the forests, at Kiptunga, the majority of the residents come from Nyeri, Meru, Nyandarua and Kisii.

John Karanja, is one of those making ends meet while farming in the forest. He also operates a small hotel in his makeshift house right inside the forest.

“Most of us farmers here are not from around. I come from Murang’a and I farm half an acre of land here where I plant potatoes. I also cook for those who work on the farms at a fee,” Karanja said.

From the outlook, the farms are productive. Hundreds of bags of potatoes are being ferried out of the farms to the roads for customers.

For Karanja, business has been great. He sells his produce from his farm. He spends most of his time on the farm and once in a while, visits his family back in Kandara in Murang’a.

Every year, those allocated farms, say they pay Sh590 per acre to the  Kenya Forest Service. According to Karanja, the pronouncement by Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua to allow the Shamba system in forests is a great move that will grant them access to more sections to farm.

“This is a brilliant move and we cannot wait for the government to allow us to expand,” Karanja said.

Except for a disposed packet and a bottle of pesticides littering a spring in this heart of Kiptunga, a strike of a midday sun rays upon it is nothing short of magnificence.

The spring is a source to many rivers including the renowned Mara river that supports the annual wildebeest migration and many others that finally drains to Lakes Victoria, Baringo and even Lake Natron. 

The system, according to locals, is fast eating up the huge chunks of the forest block that once hosted acres of indigenous forests.

“These small rivers might look clean because they spring out right at the heart of Mau but then, pollution start here from the source,” Alex Koech, a resident said.

But according to the local communities living adjacent to the forests in Marioshioni, the move is devastating and will lead to clearing of the forest.

“The activities here are already illegal. They are expanding these farms every day, felling trees, building houses and burning charcoal. What will become of these forests if they are now given full control?” Bruno Kimbai, a resident said.

Already, the rush for Mau land is already brewing conflicts between the farmers and the native pastoralists who use to graze in the forests.

While the use of herbicides is common by farmers, to pastoralists, it is devastating to their livestock as they result in miscarriages.

“Initially, we did not have such challenges but now that farmers are spraying the grazing fields and clearing the forests to pave way for farming, our livestock have become victims and suffer from miscarriages,” Philemon Koros, a resident said.

Within the large swathes of bare land, it is easy to note that farmers often use herbicides, which the locals say, often end up in water sources.

While the Shamba system was introduced to increase forest cover, the system has in the past been abused with reports pointing that the system is the most abused in the forest sector.

An April 2018 report titled Forest Resources Management and Logging Activities in Kenya revealed that indigenous forests are over-exploited by logging and abuse of the Shamba system.

“The Pelis scheme has, instead, led to considerable abuse and loss of forestland. Many other illegal practices are camouflaged under its umbrella, including agricultural encroachment into the indigenous forest through plantations,” the report states.

Abuse of the scheme is also noted to have impacted on endangered species and wildlife corridors while fuelling human-wildlife conflict.

In the Mau Forest Complex, the report states that a ground survey revealed that there is no sign of large mammals in 17 of 22 forest blocs.

Pelis, according to the report, provides access to land, leading to the illegal conversion of indigenous forests into plantations. 

The report observed that the scheme mostly leads to the establishment of low-standard forest plantations compared to best practices where it has created avenues leading to illegal conversion of indigenous forests into plantations.

Mt Kenya, Mau forest, the Aberdares Loitokitok Forest, Cherangany and Mt Elgon Forest are singled out as some of the areas where the scheme is most abused and indigenous vegetation is destroyed to pave the way to the system.

Despite the Kenya Forest Service being in charge of the Pelis scheme, the report noted that it does not have an accountable system to monitor and determine