Battle on to save one of the city’s ‘green lungs’ from early collapse

By: LISA LAVENTURE

For 10 years Charles Ndiritu has been responsible for the dangerous and frustrating task of protecting one of Nairobi’s most valuable resources. He is one of a small group of scouts responsible for protecting Ngong Road Forest, a stretch of land that borders the affluent neighbourhoods of Miotoni, Forest Edge, Karen and Dagoretti, to the slums of Riruta and Kibera.

He is in the front line against poachers who, under the cover of darkness, are killing off one of the city’s most prized natural life forms to sell for a quick profit. But unlike the anti-poaching units in Tsavo, the Chyulu Hills National Park or the Kibwezi Forest Reserve, Ndiritu works alone and has no weapon.

Located only six kilometres from Nairobi’s central business district, the forest is considered a treasure, elevating East Africa’s largest city to the global stage as one of only a handful of urban centres — such as New York City’s Central Park — to boast a large, flourishing green space in its urban core.

That symbolic value brings the city global prestige, but the practical importance of the forest is also significant. Along with Karura Forest, Ngong’s proximity to Nairobi’s 3.1 million inhabitants has prompted the area to be dubbed one of the city’s “carbon sinks”, serving to purify the air of carbon dioxide and other gases emitted by the 700,000 or so vehicles on Nairobi’s streets and other polluting industries.

The World Health Organisation estimates that, globally, one in eight deaths per year is the result of air pollution, and approximately 600,000 Africans die every year due to exposure to pollutants. If the forest disappears, experts say, the impact on both the environment and Nairobi’s population could be severe.

POACHERS AND GRABBERS

It is Ndiritu’s job to ensure that doesn’t happen, but the odds are stacked against him. Nevertheless, every few days, in the cold, dark hours of the morning, he lies in ambush, trying to catch the thieves who relentlessly attempt to steal parts of the forest.

The tree poachers, armed with handsaws and axes, always strike at night. They strategically and quietly pinpoint one or two targets and hack away. Then they go back home with their booty, hoping it will earn them a couple thousand shillings.

On some nights, Ndiritu’s ambushes are successful and his presence scares the would-be thieves away. But on many mornings his patrols reveal the effects of the incursions he couldn’t prevent – a trunk where a large, majestic, muhugu tree once stood. Deep cuts and slash marks on another the thieves could not take down. And more strikingly, the large, gaping holes left where a tree has been dug up.

While the loss of a few trees per night might not seem serious, Ndiritu stresses that the long-term impact on the forest is huge.

“This is happening on a daily basis,” adds Ngong Road Forest Association Chairman Simon Woods. “If it’s not stopped, it will be a total disaster.”

For the poachers, the Ngong Road Forest is a seemingly endless resource, a relatively easy way to steal a product that can be sold in the neighbouring slums for a good price. Demand is high as the wood is used to build houses or make charcoal; more than 70 per cent of Kenya’s energy demand is currently met through fuel wood.

But the forest is also under attack from those less desperate to make a quick profit. With Nairobi’s population estimated to explode to 40 million people within the next three to four decades, a massive wave of urbanisation means that city land will only become increasingly scarce and valuable. More than a decade after Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize, in part for her efforts to protect the Karura Forest from land grabbing, Ngong Road Forest is still threatened by those who know how to take advantage of Kenya’s land governance system, considered one of the most corrupt and bribery-prone arms of the country’s government.

The Ngong Road Forest Association, tasked with protecting the land, is drawing inspiration from the Nobel laureate’s iconic efforts. They warn that the forest is likely to be decimated within the next decade if the current rate of deforestation continues. When Ngong was first gazetted in 1932, it covered nearly 3,000 hectares. Today, the area that Ndiritu and his colleagues look after is less than half that size.

The factors contributing to the deforestation of Ngong are well known. The expansive, unsupervised piece of land is known to be dangerous because it is an easy place for criminals to hide. Recently, the body of a 17-year-old woman and her young son were found in the forest near the Karen Plains.

The fear that keeps people away from the forest also makes it an easy target for poachers. With fewer than a dozen scouts monitoring the land at any time, tree poaching is rampant at night. During the day, without clear, physical markers delineating what would be protected forestland, the forest is an easy target for land-grabbers in need of property who occupy the forest illegally and falsify title deeds.

But in the face of those obstacles, the protectors of the forest say the solution to ensure the future of one of Nairobi’s “green lungs” could be as straightforward as fencing it. The Ngong Road Forest Association has set out to put up a 45-kilometre electric fence around the entire forest. By: so doing, it hopes to make the forest a safe place for individuals to spend their time, and for businesses to operate. The higher the number of people using the forest, the harder it will be for tree poachers and land grabbers, they say.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

The association draws its inspiration from the late Maathai and the Green Belt Movement, which used similar tactics to protect Karura Forest from encroachment. The fence is a simple but expensive proposition that Mr Woods estimates will cost Sh1.2 million per kilometre. The association is currently fundraising to cover the costs of the fence, a burden that is being shouldered mostly by individual and corporate donations.

Without the fence, Ndiritu says, his job will become increasingly unsustainable.

“If there is no fence, if there is no more manpower to patrol the forest, it will be really challenging,” he says, “because right now you can access the forest from anywhere, at any time.”

The combination of poverty and greed places enormous pressure on Kenya’s forests, says Dr Jackson Mulatya, deputy director and chief scientist at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri).

The environmental impact of forest loss is threefold, he explains. Fewer trees mean a smaller carbon sink capable of offsetting the impact of air pollution in the city. It also threatens the forest’s incredible biodiversity. The forest is home to a large variety of animals, reptiles and amphibians, from bush pigs to Sykes monkeys, leopard tortoises and more than 113 different types of birds.

Finally, Dr Mulatya notes, forests control rainfall discharge, preventing flash flooding during downpours. With the El Nino rains already here, the country’s wet season could be as severe as that of 1997, when unprecedented flooding led to death and displacement. Dr Mulatya believes that due to loss of forest, this year increased runoff from the rains will be disastrous along valleys like Kibera and Mathare.

He says life will be unbearable for the residents of these slums during the rainy season, adding that there is significant risk of death and destruction of city infrastructure.

Lilian Muchungi, a community mobilisation and advocacy officer with the Green Belt Movement, echoes Dr Mulatya’s concerns.

“There will be no trees to catch the water. There will be a lot of flooding, and there will be a lot of death,” she says.

While the Meteorological Department has urged residents living in flooding- and landslide-prone areas to leave their homes, most have stayed put, saying they have nowhere to go. Various county governments have set aside upwards of Sh500 million to deal with the impact of the floods.

It is price tags such as these, Muchungi argues, that are forcing the government to pay attention to environmental issues such as deforestation and the loss of green spaces like Ngong Road Forest.

Economic opportunity

While forests such as the Ngong are continuously threatened, the rate of deforestation in Kenya is significantly lower than those in neighbouring countries, says Kefri’s Dr Mulatya.

For example, the United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) estimates that Africa lost approximately 75 million hectares of forested land from 1990 to 2010. Countries like Ghana are losing about 135,000 hectares per year, at a rate of about 1.99 per cent. Kenya’s deforestation rate is lower, averaging 0.35 per cent.

Ten years ago, the country’s forest cover was approximately 2.9 per cent. Today, it has risen to almost 7 per cent due to enhanced conservation efforts, planting of trees and better management of forestlands, says Dr Mulatya. The government has committed to achieve a minimum forest cover of 10 per cent by 2030.

COMMUNITY PRESENCE

Ms Muchungi attributes the rising rates of forest cover to government awareness of the high economic costs of ignoring the consequences of deforestation and related issues. Now it just needs to find a way to protect the forest in the heart of the capital city.

The government is beginning to understand that everything in this country is connected to a good environment, she says, “from food prices to access to clean drinking water. That when people have enough food, enough water, when the forests are protected, citizens can make more money, go to the market, and educate their children. That is the connection that wasn’t there before.”

She adds that there is an increasing number of civil society groups such as the Ngong Road Forest Association, which focus on forest conservation and have the ability to pressure the government to prioritise the protection of forests.

Ms Muchungi also stresses that public awareness of the causes of deforestation – land grabbing and tree poaching – is higher among the general public than at the time when the Green Belt Movement was fighting to protect Karura Forest. Residents are now aware that they can report illegal activities to the Kenyan Forestry Services. That community buy in, Muchungi says, is vital.

“If the communities believe that the forest belongs to them, then they will be able to protect it from the people who want to grab it, or from those who poach trees. But without the community, these activities will continue.”

It is precisely that community engagement that the Ngong Road Forest Association is hoping to encourage once the 45-kilometre perimeter fence is built.

By: securing the area, says the association’s Vice-Chairman, Mr Simon Ng’ang’a, “and by showing that the area is visibly protected, we can encourage people to use the forest for recreation, especially young people. And if the forest is seen to be active, then the grabbers and criminals who hide here, like poachers, will be driven away.”

The potential of a safe forest poses huge opportunities for local businesses.

“When the forest is threatened, it is also a threat to our business,” says Caleb Shitikho, who works in business development for the Achis Ranch and Horse Riding Club in Karen. The ranch runs riding tours throughout the Ngong Road Forest and would see more business if the forest were perceived as safe.

“We want people to start appreciating this land,” Shitikho adds. “The forest does not have to be a risky place to be. It can be fun to live in and operate around this forest.”

In addition to the environmental importance of the forest, says Dr Mulatya, it is important to remember the significance of conserving it because of the beautiful scenery it provides on the outskirts of a city that is becoming only more dense and busy.

“A city without a forest is not a city,” Ms Muchungi agrees. “You cannot live in a city that is a concrete jungle. You must make sure you have a forest where people can go to sit, relax, think and listen to the birds.

“It is simply human nature to want to be connected to nature.”

SOURCE: DAILY NATION