Environmental Stewardship in Karura Forest
By Mukami Githagui
Increasingly, Kenyans have come to appreciate the outdoors. Karura Forest in Nairobi is host to nature lovers, fitness buffs (runners, cyclists, people who love to walk), picnickers and learners. This forest is regarded as the second most visited protected nature attraction, after the Nairobi National Park.
Friends of Karura Forest (FKF) Community Forest Association is recognized by the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) as the official Community Forest Association for Karura Forest Reserve in accordance with the Forest Conservation and Management Act, 2016. This Act makes provision for the conservation and management of public, community and private forests and areas of forest land that require special protection, defines the rights in forests and prescribes rules for the use of forest land. It also makes provision for community participation in forest lands by community forest associations, trade in forest products, protection of indigenous forests and water resources.
FKF started in 2009 and signed a memorandum of understanding with KFS the same year to protect and conserve Karura Forest Reserve. One of FKF’s first tasks was to raise funds to erect an electric perimeter fence around the 1,041 hectare forest.The main block of the forest was secured on 31st January 2010, and the Sigiria block a year later. The forest was opened as a recreational space in February 2010 and currently receives guests of upto 25,000 visitors a month.
FKF has average monthly revenues of Ksh1.5million and recurrent expenditures of about the same amount. Over the years FKF has raised infrastructure development funds from donors and supporters to enable access to the forest as an eco-tourism and recreational site. In 2013, the Association launched a project supported by African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW), the Primate Research Centre and the Kenya Wildlife Service to re-introduce the colobus monkey in the forest. The project has been successful, as evidenced by the growth of the colobus monkey population from 0 to 147 currently.
Keen to enrich their inclusive approach, in 2014 FKF developed a project to increase the capacity of the communities living adjacent to the forest to enable them to reap appropriate benefits from conservation of the forest. There are three low-income settlements bordering the forest; Huruma, Githogoro and Deep Sea, from which residents have been trained on bee-keeping, tour-guiding and scouting.
The GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP) awarded FKF a grant of US$ 30,872, towards the training of 120 community members (mostly women) in forest governance and management through participatory forest management practices. After the initial generalized training, and based on performance, a select group of 30 were given specialized training in eco-tourism as well as nature based enterprises using commercially important insects. Another 10 trainees were trained as standby forest guides to serve the increasing number of visitors to the forest.
The structured eco-tourism training focused primarily on viewing Karura Forest as a nature conservancy. They were taught how to tell the story of Karura, how to interact with visitors, create interest in different aspects of the forest and answer enquiries about Karura. The tourist guide training was largely based on the botanical aspect of the forest that is how to identify different trees and shrubs and their herbal value if any. Scouts were trained mostly in security; how to identify security risks, spot suspicious activities, the efficacy of the fence surrounding the forest, and investigate any threats. Overall, secure the forest and ensure the safety of its visitors.
John Chege, Chief Scout FKF, who hails from Huruma Village, says that the community used to eke out a living from felling trees in Karura as well as burning charcoal; the establishment of FKF changed all that. They recruited men and women from the community and trained them to become scouts to protect and conserve the forest.
Once the forest was fenced, women in search of firewood were allowed to collect fallen twigs on specific days as cutting of tress is banned, a practice that has now been ingrained in the management and maintenance of the forest. With support from UNDP, community members were also trained to actively participate in bee-keeping, as an alternative “green” income-generating project.
“The community is also involved in tree planting partly in order to sustain a healthy environment for the bees but also as part of a project dubbed ‘reclaiming Karura.’ Karura was a natural forest before the colonialists who were using fuel locomotives replaced the indigenous trees with faster growing exotics like eucalyptus, which were a source of fuel for their engines.” says Chege.
Pastor Sammy Kamau, a FKF board member representing the community from Huruma says that the select group of 30 people identified under the GEF SGP funded-project, made a visit to Kakamega Forest to learn about bee keeping as well as tour guiding. As a result of this training FKF produces and packages its own honey which is sold to residents of the neighbouring affluent estates of Runda and Nyari.
“Due to the work we have been doing in Karura and the income we have generated, we have been able to start a bursary fund to pay for children’s school fees in the community. People have also come to understand the benefits of preserving such a forest. We get honey from it and we are employed here,” he goes on to add.
Jane Njunguna is a tour guide at Karura Forest and a youth representative from the community. She was a beneficiary of the GEF/SGP grant that facilitated their training. They were trained on how to identify different species of animals, birds and plants. She started off as a volunteer at Karura Forest, earning next to nothing for one year. But she chose to hang in there in spite of the meager income. “If it were not for this training I wouldn’t be here. I’d probably be working somewhere else earning much less. Now I am able to go to school and meet my needs,” she notes.
Mary Kimani a beekeeper at Karura, says she benefited greatly from the training at Kakamega forest. It increased her knowledge on bee keeping and she also got to learn about stingless bees. She goes on to add that as a result of the grant and the opportunity accorded to her community, a lot of individuals are now able to cater for their families.
FKF has at least 40 people from the community in their employ, 75 per cent of who are women; this has led to a significant change. Not only do a considerable number earn a living from Karura forest, they have also come to appreciate the conservation efforts that go into preserving it.
“Mukami Githagui is a freelance writer based in Nairobi. Mukami has covered business and written features for two of Kenya's leading media companies, the Standard Group and Nation Media Group”