On Saturday 21st July, while some team members filmed at the Colobus Trust, the rest of us spent the day with Elias Kimaru, who works for the WWF’s Eastern and Southern African Regional Programme Office, and is based in Kwale County, working in collaboration and partnership with local communities, companies and non-profit organisations to promote sustainable forest management.
We began the day with a visit to a WWF tree nursery, housed in the Diani office of the National Museums of Kenya. The tree nursery began as an effort to conserve the sacred coastal forests, or kayas, but now focuses also on the high conservation value of these forests, with research ongoing into sustainable management practices and the promotion of good governance. Building the capacity of local communities and enabling them to make a sustainable livelihood from the forests is key for this. There are over 210 species of tree in the nursery, with most being endemic or rare, and whereas people used to steal trees from the sacred forest to plant in hotel grounds and private properties, they can now buy the seedlings from the nursery. Research carried out at the nursery has uncovered a lot of information about the indigenous and endemic trees’ properties, optimum environments and life spans, and every one has been found to have a use and value for people, whether medicinal, for fast-growing and sustainable building materials, or for edible fruits.
Our next location was a community project called the Lima Self-Help Group, initiated and run by members of a community just outside the Shimba Hills Forest Reserve. The group has been in existence for nine years, and its members spend an average of three days a week working at the site, making products out of aloe, farming jatropha and casuarina trees and running a community library which was built with some of the profits made from the sale of aloe products and tree seedlings to hotels and farmers. 40,000 seedlings have been sold so far, and increasing numbers of hotels in the Diani area are signing up to buy the aloe products for their guests. Jatropha oil can be used as an alternative to kerosene for lamps, and burns an average of six times longer than traditional fuels. Jatropha grows naturally in the area and used to be used to mark graves, so when a United Nations Development Programme pilot project was implemented to test its suitability as a bio fuel, it took off well in Lima. The group is now looking into extracting the oil on a large enough scale to sell it as well as using it for themselves. We spoke to Lipi Malumbo, the founder of the group, and he explained his motivation for starting it. The women in his community were struggling and he wanted to improve their livelihoods and, in doing so, make positive changes to the whole community. At the beginning, he said, he and all the other members lived in unstable mud houses without power or running water, but they now have permanent buildings with electricity and water and, most importantly to him, are able to pay for their children’s education. The group receives technical support and marketing advice from the WWF and Lipi said they consider them to be very strong partners with whom they’re looking forward to building upon their previous and current successes.
After our meeting with Lipi, we travelled on to Shimba Hills Forest Reserve itself so that we could take some footage of the point at which seven rivers converge to form the water supply for over one million people in Mombasa and Diani. Seeing such a crucial resource at its most essential level was a thought-provoking experience, and a reminder that none of us, however far removed we feel from the environment in our comfortable city lives, can survive without the preservation of clean water sources, a deceptively complex operation which involves multiple ecosystem processes and can easily be disrupted.
Our final stop was at Kaya Kinondo, a sacred forest which was once part of the East African lowland forest ecosystem, stretching from Somalia all the way to Mozambique, but is now fragmented and still under threat. Our guide for a walk through the forest was Suleman, who explained to us the origins of the forest’s religious significance. There are nine ethnic groups along the Kenyan coast, collectively known as Mijikenda, which share language and traditions. Each group has a Kaya, or sacred forest, and Kaya Kinondo is the forest of the Digo people. Though the Digo people would originally have lived within the forest (Kaya means ‘home’), they now live in communities outside it, though the forest still plays an important part in their belief system, with elders sacrificing a black-coated animal inside the forest in times of trouble, and the Digo ancestors remaining present in spirit form. Anyone who enters the forest must be accompanied by a local guide and must observe the rules of the forest, which prohibit hugging, kissing and holding hands, the wearing of head scarves, smoking and photography of the most sacred areas. The forest is home to monkeys, dik-diks, sunis and many species of bird, as well as the huge diversity of tree species we had learnt about at the tree nursery. As Suleman led us through the forest, he explained that it used to be under the Indian Ocean, pointing out the fossilised coral that forms beautiful structures amongst the trees. The diversity of trees in what is now a very small area is incredible, and Suleman was able to tell us about many of their medicinal properties or traditional uses. As we left the forest, Elias told us that the very area we’d walked through was under threat from hotel development, and that campaigning against part of Kaya Kinondo being destroyed is crucial. It was shocking to be confronted with the stark difficulties of forest conservation in an area where traditional tourism is far more lucrative than eco-tourism or simply keeping the forest for its intrinsic value.
Our day with Elias was moving and inspiring, and we all came away hoping that the work of people like him; Lipi Malumbo and the members of Lima Self-Help Group; Suleman; and the countless other people who work tirelessly for the environment and for sustainable human livelihoods will continue to be supported and go from strength to strength.