Community Empowerment Lessons In a Tree Nursery
A DELICATE BALANCE TO MAINTAIN
The fine balance between conservation and community development is hard to find and even harder to maintain, especially when the survival of the local people is at stake.
Last October, I was invited to visit a remarkable project in a remote area of Kenya that day in and day out is weaving the delicate web between the two components of the equation.
In the northern region of the country, at the foothills of Mount Kenya, there is a community conservancy – Ngare Ndare Forest Trust (NNFT) – that works on the mission of ensuring the conservation of the Ngare Ndare forest while protecting the livelihood of the communities that live in the surrounding areas, by guaranteeing their sustainable development.
CONSERVATION IN NGARE NDARE FOREST
NNFT is a social enterprise that works in many ways and through many projects to maintain the fine balance between community and conservation. It does this both inside the forest, through the brown olive trees, and with the six communities that live on the same red soil outside its boundaries.
On the first morning of my stay I went on a bike ride with Jeremy Mwenda, one of the experienced rangers at NNFT, whom my friend Peter Kiptanui – the Trust’s Manager – had invited to be my personal forest guide for the duration of my visit.
After a short, but quite rough, drive on the very uneven dry surface, kissed by a still-warm sun and surrounded by community fields and the verdant views of the forest, Jeremy and I arrived at one of the 15 community nurseries that exist around the forest.
The Trust provides support to them through the 1-for-1 programme, a successful partnership established with the nurseries where for each seedling bought, they get another free courtesy of the Trust. The Ngare Ndare Forest Trust is aware that the process of education about the importance of environmental conservation within the communities needs to be accompanied by tangible and sustainable economic alternatives, for them to support their family and maintain their well-being – the 1-for-1 programme is one of the solutions they have found.
There are still many issues though and the first and biggest is the lack of sufficient water.
The effects of climate change have already become worryingly visible and the absence of proper rain in the last two years is also affecting the little plants in the community garden.
Julius – the tree nursery’s chairman – showed me several of the plants they are growing in the nurseries. Among them is the indigenous red cedar, but also many exotic species like the cypress, the gravelia robusta and the so-called bottle brush plant, because of the similarity with the kitchen tool. Jeremy confirmed that many of them should have been planted out at least a year ago, but they are now overgrowing their little nests.
The lack of water is affecting both the exotic species, destined for the market and which represent an additional source of income for them, and also the indigenous ones that would be replanted in the forest.
By chatting with the other members, I acknowledge the further frustrations that emerge. They tell me that there is a river running a few hundred metres further down, but unfortunately there are no pipes or pumping machines available to take the water up to the allotment.
…AND EVEN BIGGER ACHIEVEMENTS
Beyond these serious struggles though, I realised that their understanding of their interdependence with the forest is perhaps the biggest and most important achievement of the NNFT work, which means it is avoiding adding human-made damage to the fragile ecosystem of Ngare Ndare forest.
More community members have now realised that having a healthy forest is also essential for their own survival, and they actively support it – this is proved by the fact that the number of tree nurseries is growing.
The Trust also has a main tree nursery, which I visited on another day, that grows over 100,000 indigenous tree seedling species intended for replanting inside the forest, and they also have a demonstration plot used as a training area.
Community engagement happens in several ways, and this is one of them. Tree growing and planting, both in their own plot of land next to their house as well as along the river, are contributing to controlling erosion and preventing floods in the region. Community participation is also, most crucially, present in the decision-making process through their representatives in the Board of Trust.
I strongly believe that a visit to the tree nurseries should be included as an experience among the other eco-tourism activities already offered by the NNFT, which are developed to complement and strengthen the support that it provides to the forest with the help of the communities.
Visits to the waterfalls, swims in the natural blue pools, or strolls on the longest canopy walk in East Africa should be accompanied by meeting the local people that are working to preserve those natural beauties. Because as much as the game drive, the hiking and the forest camping, a visit to one of the community tree nurseries will also give the visitors a strong sense of the place. And this would include a better understanding of the realities involved, by being able to ask questions to the local community members who are engaged in the protection of their land. For me, that was a very valuable and interesting experience, and one of the encounters that also make our travels richer and deeper, on the human level.
Equally beautiful and fascinating was learning about the properties of some of the medicinal plants: like rosemary, which I discovered is good for the heart, or the pepper tree – an indigenous species – that is traditionally drunk with milk and which, according to Julius, is worth trying despite its very strong flavour, because of its healthy properties, according to local medicinal knowledge.
But most of all, it was beautiful to witness their care for the young plants, that they carry with passion and dedication in spite of every daily struggle, finding renewed faith in the communal effort and the fact that things can change for the better, tomorrow.
A MESSAGE TO THE TOURIST
I was truly surprised by the message that the lovely young lady – the youngest of the women I met in the community nursery that day – wanted to deliver to tourists.
She invited them to plant fruit trees and flowers in their own gardens. As a representative of the new generation of community members of Ngare Ndare Forest, it is promising to see that the importance and value of protecting the natural environment is so rooted in their awareness and has taken priority in their lives.
A community that recognises the value of conservation is the first step towards healthy cohabitation. It might not be enough, but it is certainly the first condition needed.
So, let’s plant more trees and flowers in our gardens and community land. Our cities need that and we, as tourists, also need to understand the precarious situation of the land we visit on holiday, learn from it and get inspired to make positive changes.
If you want to participate in the Adopt a tree programme please contact the NNFT directly: email@example.com