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DP Rigathi Gachagua stirs the pot with push for return of emotive shamba system

DP Rigathi Gachagua and President William Ruto. [DPPS]

The Kenya Kwanza government has rekindled the contentious shamba system that is adored by communities living near forests and loathed by environmental activists in equal measure.

Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua kicked of the debate in Baringo, where he made remarks alluding to the Government allowing people to farm inside forests.

“In the forest there was a shamba system, where people were allowed to grow maize, nurture the trees and when grown they would leave. This government is yours, we have issued an order for people to be allowed to farm inside the forest,” he said at the time.

Days later Gachagua claimed he had been misquoted by the media and sought to clarify his remarks.

“When I was in Baringo I did announce that we have a serious programme on afforestation. There’s a lot of land within the forest reserves earmarked for tree planting. We are going to mobilise farmers in the old spirit to assist us plant new trees in areas that have no trees and take care of them as they farm until the trees are of age and the forest can continue growing,” he said.

As expected the comments received a big applause from local residents but what followed was a barrage of criticism from forest and environmental activists accusing the government of returning the wanton destruction of forests. The controversial shamba system was intended to encourage farmers assist in planting trees in exotic plantations harvested by either pulp makers or saw millers among other commercial consumers.

It was a form of agroforestry that encouraged farmers to plant trees alongside their crops but instead of cutting the trees, they were to maintain them and plant more. Beneficiaries were mostly poor peasants and landless people who were given an opportunity to plant crops for their own food security.

“The farmers tended young plantation trees while producing food crops. Under this method of establishing plantations, local communities benefited from cultivation of food crops intercropped with the tree seedlings,” says George Cheloti, a retired Director of Forestry.

He says in areas like Kaberua forest in Mt Elgon, farmers were allocated freshly cleared areas to plant food crops for two to three years while cypress and pine tree seedlings became established outside the main indigenous forest. The Programme introduced to improve forest cover also became popular in Mt Kenya, Maji Mazuri, Kabaru, Kibiri, South Nandi, North Nandi, Mt Elgon, Cherangany, Sabatia, Mau Forest and Koibatek-Lembus forest areas. Although it became popular in the late 1980’s and 1990’s an officer at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry told The Sunday Standard that before it was banned in 2003, it had existed since mid-last century.

“Since mid19th century, Kenya adopted this system to establish tree plantations by means of cheap or totally free labour, in order to meet the demand for timber,” said the officer who declined to be quoted.

The Forest Act (2005) allowed the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) to give communities living adjacent to forests access through community forest associations, to grow crops in reserve land. In 2005, a new Act received parliamentary approval and endorsement from the President and came into effect when it was formally gazetted on February 9, 2007. The system has been linked to encroachment on forest land and logging in Mau Forest Complex as wood choppers invaded forests targeting indigenous trees like cedar, Elgon teak, camphor and red oak.

“The system is a cheap way to boost afforestation but sadly, it was destroying large areas covered by indigenous trees. Farmers benefiting from the system were meanwhile tending commercial trees and not replacing traditional species which take many years to mature,” says Cheloti.

The Deputy President’s message could, however, have been understood better had it been communicated properly because the shamba system still exists in the Forest Act and it was not intended to interfere with rain forests.  Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko outlawed all agricultural activities in forests leading to complaints from communities living around them. Those who trespassed were arrested despite the fact that they depended on the forests for grazing their livestock and firewood, herbs and other domestic needs.

An aerial view of part of Mau forest that was cleared for farming. [File, Standard]

The user rights are provided for in the law and they include the collection of medicinal herbs, harvesting of honey, harvesting of timber for fuelwood, grass harvesting and grazing, collection of forest produce for community-based industries, ecotourism and recreational activities. Others are scientific and educational activities, plantation establishment through nonresident cultivation and contracts to assist in carrying out specified silvicultural operations.

Communities can also have wood and non-wood forest-based industries, and any other benefits that may from time to time be agreed upon between forest associations and the KFS. These rights including construction of hotels for tourism have been given, so long as they do not conflict with the conservation of biodiversity. None of those activities were allowed by the outgoing administration arising from complaints that the shamba system was being used to destroy trees and create room for forest land settlements.

The irony is that most forest plantations in Kenya have been established through the nonresidential cultivation or shamba system. Under this system, farmers are given pieces of clear, felled plantation forest areas to cultivate while taking care of planted tree seedlings. The farmers are allowed to occupy the plots until the canopy closes or a maximum of three years, whichever comes first but it was banned in 2003 because of its abuse in some forest areas.

“The system was commercialised and plots were in most cases sold to prospective cultivators with forest officers either colluding or speculating from the sidelines,” said a senior officer at Mazingira House.

He said cultivators resorted to either uprooted young trees or cut of the branches and roots to stunt them in an effort to stay longer in the forests. Some gave the forest officers more money which took the farmers longer periods to recover from the maize, beans, tomato and potato plantations. Politicians also used the farms to secure votes by threatening forest officers to ensure supporters continued farming and grazing in the forests.

“They were used as voting blocks, because of diverse political interests but the forest department staff who are poorly paid also used them as a source of additional money through corruption,” said the officer.

And so the shamba system became a free for all because of failure to follow guidelines by both law enforcers and users leading to serious abuse of the system. Consecutive governments banned logging from natural forests from 1982 in the interests of protecting the remaining forest reserves that had been destroyed by people who were farming in open areas.

That, however, was not successful in preventing timber harvesting in indigenous forest, leading to the blanket ban including prohibition of harvesting and farming in forest plantations. That is why in 2003, the shamba system was banned because in some areas it was commercialised and in many areas plots were being sold to prospective cultivators by forest department staff.

The appointment of Prof Wangari Maathai as an Assistant Minister for Environment by President Mwai Kibaki that year led to the ban of the shamba system. She argued that it contributed to the dwindling of natural forests because farmers were only planting and taking care of exotic trees in the plantations.

 “We cannot sacrifice indigenous forests at the expense of exotic plantations. Plantations represent a monoculture of trees, but a forest is an ecology system,” Maathai told The Standard at the time.