Rural communities are facing the double tragedy of poverty and biodiversity loss, with the trend pointing to an increase in food shortage and human-wildlife conflicts.
The situation is blamed on the overexploitation of natural resources with no counter mechanisms to improve food production systems and conserve nature.
In Kilifi and Kwale counties, nearly 30 per cent of arable land has been lost in just 10 years due to population growth and climate change.
This happens as age-old food supply chains, which were initially reliable, have become vulnerable to pests and diseases. Now, hunger and drought have put communities in arid and semi-arid areas on the edge.
At least four million people face hunger in more than 20 counties areas. The State has earmarked Sh6 billion to respond to drought between now and May but experts advice that ecological restoration should be escalated in these hotspots.
A short rains assessment report by the government shows the coastal region's marginal agricultural counties and agro-pastoral counties are experiencing a 'stressed' food security status. Desperation seems to be growing.
Farmers in Kwale's Lunga Lunga and Kinango sub counties say times are hard, with their annual farm harvests dipping by close to 60 per cent. "It's been hard to tell when the rains will come and yet we've no capacity to irrigate. We no longer get the quantities we use to harvest," says Fatuma Ali, a green grams farmer.
Around Shimba Hills in Kinango Sub County, farmers are reeling from losses arising from elephant and money invasions. Hussein Chugulu of Bushu village says they lose up to 80 per cent of their crops to wildlife, a trend blamed on drought and the destruction of animal habitats. "The situation is desperate day by day," he told journalists.
Governor Fatuma Achani recently estimated that more than 200,000 people were facing hunger. The county needs more than Sh200 million to ease the suffering from the drought that also affected Lamu, Kilifi, Tana River, and Taita Taveta. In Kitui and Makueni, key rivers such as Tawa, Ngwani have dried up while Athi and Thwake are on the brink, further fuelling desperation among farmers.
But it is the difficulty of dealing with climate change that has intrigued officials and residents. Land and marine ecosystems upon which more than 70 per cent of rural livelihoods depend have lost their allure. The county forest is at 5.2 per cent against the national target of 10 per cent and could further reduce.
Local administrators in Dzombo Location of Lunga Lunga constituency in Kwale say population growth has put immense pressure on local resources, including forests. "When you visit nearby forests such as Mrima and Mareje, they are a shadow of the dense forests we used to see," says area chief Mohamed Mwatepiwe.
"Everyone wants to grow crops but they have no land. And because they have no other means, they cut trees so that they get space to cultivate crops," he says.
Salim Mbungo, the chairman of Roma youth group, says they have turned to organised groups and football tourneys to conduct civic education on environmental conservation. "Deforestation is at a high rate as people look for survival. We use youth forums to advocate for tree planting," Mbungo said yesterday during a visit led by Moses Nderitu, the Kwale Coordinator of the National Agricultural and Rural Inclusive Growth Project (Narigp).
Mwanasity Mbwana, a community development officer, warns that ecosystem loss has left local communities vulnerable. "Because of poverty, locals are felling trees anyhow. They make charcoal or sell them to loggers," Mbwana says, a concern corroborated by the many sacks of charcoal on sale along the Lunga Lunga-Ukunda road.
She adds: "We now frequently hear of roofs blown off or houses that have fallen due to strong winds. This is because most of the land is bare due to the haphazard felling of trees. We've been sustaining civic education to reverse this trend."
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In Kilifi, The Standard spoke to families in Ganze sub county whose lives have been shattered by drought. "Here we mainly rely on water from Sabaki river, more than 20km away," says Salim Ali, a farmer.
Widespread poverty in Kilifi has made conservation a nightmare. "We need massive civic education. Politicians, lobby groups, NGOs, private sector and government should combine efforts towards massive civic education," says Narigp Kilifi County project monitoring head officer Baraka Kidzao.
In Ganze, farmer Peter Kombo blames the rapid loss of tree cover at the nearby Mwongea Hills on logging and charcoal burning. "Uptake of modern farming practices remains low. And the prolonged drought has further complicated life here," he says.
According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Kenya has diverse ecological zones and habitats, including forests, wooded and open grasslands, semi-arid scrubland, dry woodlands, inland aquatic, as well as coastal and marine ecosystems but their status has declined. KWS, in its priority ecosystems and species list, says 44 ecosystems, 25 mammals, 27 birds, 52 reptiles and 26 fish types are endangered or threatened.
The 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity was held last year with a framework to reverse biodiversity loss by 2050.