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Between 1980 and 2000, Kenya lost nearly 50% of its forest cover. Some 300,000 hectares of forest were destroyed due to intensive logging, charcoal production and large-scale clearance of wooded areas for tea plantations.
Symbolic of this destruction is the Mau Forest, at 273,000 hectares the largest forested area in Kenya with a seven-lake drainage basin covering more than 69,000 km2, from which one quarter of its canopy had disappeared, threatening the survival not only of millions of wildebeest and thousands of gazelles and buffaloes migrating through Kenya and Tanzania, but also of riparian communities.
But, thanks to implementation of the Green Zones Development Support Project, with US$38.8 million in funding from the African Development Bank, more than 14,000 hectares of forest were replanted between 2007 and 2016, in order to stem this deadly trend.
Years of overexploitation of forest resources without respect for ecosystems had left bare the hills around Joseph Kimani's house. Deforestation had even caused a local river in the Rift Valley to choke up. On these cleared areas threatened by drought and famine, Kimani, a community manager aged around 50, found himself up against the wall, just like neighbours — farmers and loggers – living near the Mau Forest.
"We wondered what the reason was for this drought and famine," Kimani says. It did not take him long to find the answer: "It was because we destroyed the forest..." Settled around this vast forest complex, Kimani and others like him were felling trees for use as fuel in their kitchens and for making charcoal for sale.
Massive deforestation was followed by more frequent flooding, while the rivers shrunk to a trickle during the dry season. It looked like the end for any kind of agriculture. "It was very difficult. We didn't have enough money to get us out of it," said Ann Ruto, a farmer from the village of Simotwet, in the Rift Valley.
This was a critical situation that not only imperilled thousands of animal and plant species and the indigenous population, but also aroused concerns about the economic future of Kenya, since vital sectors, including agriculture, tourism and energy depend on the natural environment.
In 2005, determined to reverse the trend, Kenyan authorities approached the Bank and secured a US$38.8 million loan to implement a green zone development project. This was the biggest contribution by a financial partner in this sector. It did so with two aims in mind: to promote regeneration and conservation of the forest, in order to protect the environment; and to improve livelihoods in rural areas and the incomes of communities living adjacent to forest areas.
Two years later in 2007, the Kenya Forest Service was formed, to work closely with the country's farmers. The first task assigned to both parties was to rebuild the national vegetation over an area of 7,000 km2 located at the edge or in the heart of 21 classified forests.
To meet this colossal challenge, training was delivered in bee keeping and fish farming, especially to farmers and foresters to help them develop a completely different activity that ended their economic dependence on the forest.
In less than 10 years, the results have been spectacular: working hand in hand, farmers and loggers have rewooded 14,300 hectares of degraded forests. To better protect the 'green lung' of the country, buffer zones have been created through the planting of 1,500 hectares of tea and 5,700 hectares of fuel wood, supported by the improvement of 342 km of rural roads. The project also has positive economic benefits, with the creation of 3,000 sustainable jobs in communities bordering the forests. A total of some 17,100 households, 40% headed by women, have seen their incomes increase.
"This project has changed my life. It's made me optimistic about the future," said Ann Ruto, mother of four, who was able to send her children to private school thanks to her rising income.
Ruto was trained in modern agricultural techniques and thanks to that she was able to increase her milk production and start growing vegetables. She saw her earnings increase tenfold from US$10 in the period from 2016 to 2017. Now, like many other villagers, she has taken her new role as guardian of the forest to heart.
Meanwhile, Joseph Kimani is still working with officials from the Kenya Forest Service to prevent illegal logging. After personally living through the dangers of deforestation, he has become a passionate defender of his new way of life and one of the most beautiful reserves in the country: "We are the eyes of the forest," he said, delighted to be exercising his new vocation.
"Kenya is deeply reliant on the natural environment," said Onesmus Maina, African Development Bank head of the Green Zones Development Support Project. "It is vital to ensure that we protect the forest cover to secure the social and economic development of Kenya," he added.