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Forest initiative turns widows and the disabled from beggars to earners

 Nelson Omondi a Nyatike Mirema Community Forest Association Members on March 21, 2023, attends to the tree seedling at the group project site. (Caleb Kingwara, Standard)

Nelson Omondi walks slowly as he inspects a tree nursery with seedlings that are ready to be transplanted and are waiting for a buyer to give them a new home, as the rainy season begins to peak.

He carefully removes a few weeds that are growing in the nursery and steps back slowly to admire the results of his hard work. The tree nursery is located next to the Mirema forest in Macalder, Nyatike sub-county.

Mirema forest was on the verge of extinction as a result of massive deforestation by locals.

It is easy to see the passion Omondi, a 59-year-old father of three, has for the plants as he carefully tends to them.

Omondi is also a person living with a disability (PWD), and barely six years ago he was begging for help from well-wishers to help him feed his family. Erratic rainfall patterns that led to crop failure only worsened his condition as his family used to depend on farming as their livelihood.

The devastating effects of climate change have rendered parts of Nyatike, where Omondi hails from, to be clustered under the country's arid and semi-arid regions.

"I had to drop out of Form Three to find ways to fend for our family. We could not even afford school fees," he says.

His fate, however, changed in 2018 when he received news that a group of volunteers and environmental enthusiasts had embarked on an exercise to rehabilitate Mirema hills and restore its forest cover.

Omondi joined the initiative and has been a member for five years now.

"I did not know I could find hope in tree planting and earn a penny from it while also contributing to the protection of the environment that has undergone massive degradation," he says.

He says despite the challenges he was facing, it always pained him to see the destruction of forests in Nyatike as residents sought alternative means of survival by burning charcoal for sale.

"Although I cannot do heavy work because of my weak leg, I wanted to be part of this initiative and engage in something that could make a difference in my community," Omondi says. The environmentalists work under the banner of Nyatike Mirema Community Forest Association with an aim of reversing the negative trend of environmental destruction that was gaining roots in the region.

 Members of Nyatike Community Forest Association (CFA) clear bushes and plant indigenous trees in the open spaces within Nyatike-Mirema forest. (Nanjinia Wamuswa, Standard)

The Association has a total of 111 members, of whom 38 are women including 30 widows. Through the initiative, Omondi learnt how to take care of tree nurseries and also plant trees. He says after becoming a key member of the initiative, he was charged with the responsibility of looking after tree nurseries. He also sells tree seedlings at Sh10 each.

"We did not have trees in our compound and the whole place was dry," says Omondi, adding that after being environmentally conscious, he has also planted trees in his home which they use as medicine and fuel from trimmed branches.

He is not alone; Rose Akumu from Magharibi village in Macalder, who suffered a stroke in 2015 says she was forced to close her business which involved a lot of travelling.

The stroke affected the left side of her body and left her disabled. The incident happened barely two years after she had lost her husband.

Unable to undertake any other activity, Akumu started planting tree seedlings at her home with the help of her children.

The mother of four, who is also a widow, says the area was barren as the streams they relied on for water had dried up completely.

Now, Akumu says she has been able to earn a living as she makes money from the venture. Akumu is also part of a community group involved in tree planting in exchange for money.

"I wanted to depend on myself because I could not continue begging. I also wanted to ensure that our community gets rain so that we get food," she says.

While some of the people living with disabilities plant tree seedlings independently, others have joined the community Nyatike Mirema Community Forest Association to learn how to develop tree nurseries.

They sell most of their tree seedlings locally but have also been receiving orders from organisations and county governments in South Nyanza who are keen on boosting forest cover.

Caren Atieno, a widow with seven children, says she does not regret joining the community group which has helped her earn a living and educate her children.

Atieno says through table banking, the group keeps savings from the sale of seedlings. Thus she is able to borrow money to pay school fees for her children.

Atieno has four children in secondary school and university, whom she manages to provide for with proceeds from the tree nursery as well as a separate business of selling pruned branches for food.

The budding entrepreneur who lost her husband four years ago, says she joined her neighbours to learn how to grow tree seedlings after she realised that sitting at home would not help her.

"I also try to get other widows like me on board because being part of this initiative helps us share ideas and it beat loneliness," says Atieno.

William Odhil, an environmentalist, says they have been keen to inspire more people to plant trees. He said they first placed all their efforts in the revival of Mirema Hill forest which was adversely affected by human activities as people cut down trees to settle and burn charcoal.

By the year 2000, Mirema Hill had been reduced to shrubs, and streams with sources from the hill had dried up.

An exercise to rehabilitate the forest started in 2018 and just five years after the revival process began, Mirema forest has come back to life.

The community in Macalder can now plant twice a year as compared to before when they would only plant once. Not only that, they can also get water from the streams which have sprung back to life.

"We have institutions coming to learn here because they know where Mirema forest was and is now," he says.

Besides Mirema Forest, the CSO has revived 10 hills including Tigra, Got Keyo, Got Kogalo, Nyalgwena, Got Kwach, Omange, Got Bim, Raga, Winjo and Nyabomo.

Data from Global Forest Watch shows Nyatike had 1.83Kha (thousands of hectares) of tree cover in 2010, extending over 1.5 per cent of its land area.

In 2021, it lost 154Mha (million hectares) of tree cover, which is equivalent to 52.7kt (kilotons) trillion of carbon dioxide emissions.

From 2001 to 2021, Nyatike was found to have lost 222 hectares of tree cover, equivalent to a 14 per cent decrease in tree cover since 2000, and 55.0kt carbon dioxide emissions.

In the Lake Region Economic Bloc (LREB) 11th summit meeting that was held in Migori county last week, governors from 14 counties led by Kisumu Governor Anyang' Nyong'o who is the LREB chair, recognised that climate change is a real threat to food security and nutrition.

The governors committed to investing in climate change policies and legislation to support the response as they promised to set aside two per cent of their budgets for climate change activities, aside from harmonising climate change policy for the Lake Region Bloc.

Daniel Gathiru, an official at the National Alliance of Community Forest Association (Nacofa), says they have been making efforts to amplify the voices of vulnerable groups in the CFAs and visiting them at their locations.

"The marginalised groups have come from not being given attention to being listened to," says Gathiru, while acknowledging that there is low awareness of policies when it comes to the village level.

Migori County Environment Executive (CEC) Rahab Robi said they will plant 5,000 more trees at Mirema forest this season in partnership with members of the community and the national government.

Robi said they are targeting vulnerable groups in civil society organisations (CSOs) who will be identified through an awareness programme.

She further noted that they will reserve 30 per cent of funds for the purchase of their trees, as the county plans to roll out a massive exercise of greening Migori county.

This story was produced with support from WWF-K VCA Project and MESHA.

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