Reviving dead forest to tame climate crisis

Members of Nyatike Community Forest Association clear bushes and plant indigenous trees within Nyatike-Mirema forest in Migori County. [Nanjinia Wamuswa, Standard]

Monica Atieno Wanga invites Planet Action to follow her inside a forest. In there, we find men and women clearing bushes in open areas and planting indigenous trees.

We are inside the Nyatike-Mirema Forest in Nyatike sub-County, Migori. Since, 2018, the Community Forest Association (CFA), of which Atieno is a member, has endeavoured to restore the forest.

Besides enjoying returns of increased tree cover in the county, Atieno can now return to her herbalist job, a source of livelihood she abandoned several years ago due to deforestation.

Atieno, now 68, says: “My grandmother was famous for treating hundreds of people in Migori, Kisumu, Homa-Bay and Kisii. Since I loved accompanying her to her trade, she showed me several medicinal trees and herbs, how and what they treated.”

At 15, Atieno was already an expert. Her grandmother, growing weary, began to send Atieno to treat clients in distant places. She eventually inherited the business when the old woman died.

The trade had good returns. In a week she would see at least five clients who paid cash, gave grains or livestock.

However, in the early 1970s, as fate would have it, locals invaded the forest. They cut trees for poles, firewood, charcoal and to farm. That is how the medicinal plants were lost.

Without a forest, Atieno found it hard locating medicinal herbs. At times she would trek in search of herbs from thickets far away. Eventually, she abandoned the trade and took up farming.

So, when she learned of plans to revive the forest at a baraza, Atieno volunteered to participate. The project dubbed Regreening Africa, and sponsored by the European Union, is managed by the World Vision Kenya, Kenya Forest Service (KFS), World Agroforestry, Kenya Forest Research Institute, and National Environment Management Authority, British American Tobacco, Family Bank and Equity Bank.

The project aims to improve livelihoods, strengthen food security and build resilience to climate change, while at the same time restoring degraded ecosystem. “It is expected to improve livelihoods, food security and diversify ecosystem services,” says Mr Charles Odhiambo, a climate change expert at World Vision Kenya.

Through assessment of health of the soils and vegetation, the project identifies suitable restoration practices and appropriate tree species for various agroecology.

Encroachment had left the forest degraded, ecosystem interfered with and was contributing to desertification and negative effects of climate change.

The forest is the catchment area for River Migori. The levels of water in the river reduced after several streams dried. There was no water for locals and livestock that depended on the river. Women and girls had to walk long distances to get water for use at home.

Mr Odhiambo says the area started getting only one rain season and farmers reduced planting seasons, contributing to food insecurity.

“And whenever it rained heavily, some areas experienced floods; displacing families, killing livestock and breeding waterborne diseases. The high speed of runoff water and erosion caused silting of River Migori,” he says.

Yet, despite immense restoration benefits, locals who had settled in the forest resisted leaving.

Mr Ronald Aloo, the Nyatike sub-County Forest KFS Officer, recalls how hard it was to convince locals to move out of the forest. “We asked locals to leave so that we could embark on restoration process, but they declined. We had to use force. It wasn’t easy. But within three months, with the help of Migori Forest Conservator, we moved them out and stopped further cultivation,” says Mr Aloo.

Later, they united communities living around the forest and sensitised them on the importance of conserving the forest. That is how the Nyatike CFA was born, registered and joint journey to restore the forest started.

Mr William Odhil, the Chairman of Nyatike CFA, says locals first resisted because they did not understand the importance of conserving environment.

“Despite hardships locals faced like low food production due to little or no rain and dried streams, they did not know it was due to their own destructive activities,” he said.

He said the locals knew, the only way to farm in the forest was first to cut down all the trees. Capacity building, including on establishing nurseries, grafting and management and protecting young trees, did not only change attitudes of locals but also helped them transit to agroecology.

Mr Odhiambo says that mapping helped them realise that the area has rich regeneration with indigenous trees. They embarked on enrichment planting, introducing valuable species in addition to the existing, and Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR), where they regenerate and manage trees and shrubs from dead stumps, roots and seeds. “The FMNR recognises in natural environment, if there is no disturbance, the underground is itself a bank of seeds, tree stumps that have roots and if nurtured and well taken care of they start sprouting and become trees,” said Mr Odhiambo.

They also planted exotic trees like Markhamia Lutea, Moringa, which is medicinal, and calliandra, which is used as livestock feed.

Many farmers now practice FMNR. Mr Samson Ouma from Milimani village, Nyatike, says he locates crowded trees and identifies those he wants to nurture. “I cut the weak and leave strong ones to grow to mature trees.”

He then uses the chopped weak trees as fuel, or to burn charcoal. As the trees grow, farmers prune the canopies so that they do not choke crops, and use cut branches as source of fuel.

Mr Ouma says after cutting weak trees, he creates space and plants crops like maize, beans and cassava. He is also doing fruit tree agroforestry and his farm is full of mangoes, pawpaws, oranges and avocados. “This has not only boosted restoration of trees and water, but also increased production of food crops,” a happy Mr Ouma says.

Mr Odhiambo says it is an advantage having crops integrated with trees on the farm. He says: “Trees provide shade, leaves and stems decompose and make manure that enriches the productivity of the soil. Others are naturally Nitrogen fixing and enrich the soil.” 

For over four years since its launch, the project is redeeming lost glory of the forest. The sub-County Forest Officer says more tham 50 per cent of enrichment planting and FMNR has been restored.

Medicinal trees are back and Atieno is already treating people, albeit a few. One of the medicinal trees she uses is Zanthoxylum Usambarense, locally known as Roko. Internet sources say Roko’s bark is used for emetic and to treat malaria and rheumatism.

Another is Rhus Natalensis, locally known as Sangla, whose branchlets are used to brush teeth. Its root decoctions are taken orally to stop diarrhoea. Its branch decoction is also administered orally to ease stomach upset.

Sangla leaves are used in treating coughs and stomach ache. The root decoction also forms part of a medicine for hookworms. The leaf infusion is used in preparing a cough mixture.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines herbal medicine as a practice that includes herbs, herbal materials, herbal preparations and finished herbal products that contain active ingredients, parts of plants, or other plant materials, or a combination.

According to WHO Global Report on Traditional and Complementary Medicine (T&CM) 2019, T&CM can make a significant contribution to the goal of UHC by being included in the provision of essential health services. “Improving equitable access to safe, quality and effective T&CM services can potentially meet communities’ needs and build sustainable and culturally sensitive primary health care,” WHO states.

Today, streams have water which they pour into River Migori.

Nyatike used to have one rain season between March and June. Today, water is in plenty.