Women are leading communities to save Kakamega forest – and making some money while at it

By Treezer Michelle Atieno

Kakamega forest, the only surviving rainforest in Kenya, is the easternmost remnant of the prehistoric Guineo-Congolian Forest. Listed in 2010 by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, it’s a unique sanctuary for a remarkable diversity of endemic birds, insects and over 380 plant species, many of which are not found anywhere else in Kenya.

The community living adjacent to Kakamega forest heavily depends on it for timber, fuel wood, herbal medicines, building materials and other resources for daily life. But high levels of poverty often mean that the resources are getting depleted in an unsustainable manner.

“During my early days in this area, the forest was very thick. That has really changed. We have lost manyimportant trees like the Kumulembe tree that we used to treat several diseases, including ulcers,” says Maridah Khalawa.

Khalawa believes there is a way for communities to both protect and profit from the forest, so she founded the Muliru Farmers Conservation Group. Rather than cut down trees, the group has beehives in the forest, and they harvest honey every three months, demonstrating that communities can benefit from the forest while conserving it.  To use medicinal trees, the group promotes an ethical harvesting procedure: barks, leaves and root parts can only be harvested from mature trees so as not to interfere with the growth of younger ones.

Agnes Mulimi, head of Shamiloli Forest Conservation Green Growers, works with a philosophy similar to Khalawa’s in leading her group’s agroforestry and reforestation effort. The all-women group was founded in 2000 and formally registered in 2015. It trains its members on alternative means of forest income and distributes tree seedlings to encourage reforestation. Mulimi shows The Continent Blue Gum and Cyprus seedlings that the group has planted for free distribution in the community. “We give people these seedlings for free and offer planting advice. We are against wasting even a single tree,” she says.

When women are active conservationists, government forest officers allow them to grow crops in the forest as long as such planting does not require cutting down the trees. The Shamiloli group grows camphor basil and sells it to a factory managed by Muliru Farmers Conservation Group.

Others, like the Valonji Women Group in the Shinyalu area, are working to reduce household consumption of forest resources like firewood. The group makes and sells energy efficient stoves that preserve heat because they are moulded from clay and therefore use less firewood than the traditional three-stone open fireplaces that area residents typically use for cooking. The group also has 23 beehives for additional income. They harvest around 12 kilograms every 3 months, which they sell at 1100 Kenyan shillings ($8.61) per kilogram.

With the support of conservation scientists and government initiatives, women’s groups have figured out that their communities can continue to live off Kakamega forest without depleting it badly. Their ingenuity and the longevity of their efforts stand as strong arguments for what Inger Anderson, executive director of the United National Environmental Program, said at the 66th UN Status of Women meeting last year. “We have had enough of male-dominated solutions. A just transition to a green, sustainable future requires gender-responsive approaches.”

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