Surrounded by tall, spindly trees in Central 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 Ms Njoki cultivates at home in the nearby town of Lari, Kiambu County this quarter acre (0.1 hectares) of forest land she leases from the government means she can double her yield of kale and potatoes.
In return, the 41-year-old produce seller 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 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 seven per cent of Kenya is forested, and in its Budget, announced on April 7, Treasury Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yatani said it would allocate Sh10 billion 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.
Mr Isaac Waweru, the forest station manager for Uplands Forest 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. 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.
Kenyan farmers have been able to lease land in forests since the Plantation Establishment and Livelihood Improvement Scheme (PELIS) was introduced under the 2005 Forest Act.
But the programme only started gaining ground after 2016, when an updated forest act gave the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) more leeway to encourage communities to use forests sustainably, said Julius Kamau, Kenya’s chief conservator of forests.
For Sh500 a year - a tenth of what it usually costs to lease farmland - farmers get a parcel of forest to use for growing crops, keeping bees or dairy animals, and other agricultural activities.
Under the deal, farmers also help raise trees, mainly exotic fast-growing species such as cypress and pine, from seedlings provided by the KFS, which later sells the trees for timber.
After three to five years, when the trees have reached maturity, farmers either leave the PELIS programme or move to a new patch of forest cleared by the KFS to cultivate and replant.
Mr Nganga Muigai, another farmer living in Lari, has been growing potatoes and kale inside Uplands Forest for the past two years and said he has heard of fewer incidents of illegal logging and muggings in the area in recent years.
“This is because the forest is so busy,” he said, pointing to three women walking behind a donkey pulling a cart filled with sacks of grass.
There are no public records to show how much forest land is currently being farmed under PELIS, and the KFS did not respond to requests for that information.
A 2018 parliamentary report noted that the KFS had by then allocated more than 23,600 hectares of forest to the programme.
Assistant chief conservator of forests Mr Jerome Mwanzia said the KFS plans to allocate an additional 10,000 hectares between now and 2028.
Mr Walubengo, the conservationist, said schemes like PELIS will have limited success unless the government does more to show communities the benefits of preserving forests.
He has heard of farmers who are reluctant to move to a different plot uprooting mature crops and leaving only young plants, so it looks like they need more time to harvest.
That results in their crops competing with the growing trees for nutrients, he explained.
Mr Waweru at the Uplands Forest Station said the contracts signed give the KFS the power to repossess the land if a farmer tries to stay past the agreed time frame.
In Lari, farmer Mr Muigai said the programme could do more to lift livelihoods if it focused as much on the needs of farmers as it does on protecting trees.
He pointed to the rule that says farmers can cultivate only short-term, low crops, because taller crops, like maize, can block sunlight from growing tree seedlings and interfere with their roots.
While he has benefited from PELIS, “if the KFS would be kind enough to let us grow maize for food and animal fodder, we would be grateful,” he added.