LAIKIPIA, Kenya — An elderly man clad in a long green-and-yellow plaid shawl knotted tightly above one shoulder sits on the dusty verandah of Mukogodo Primary School, oblivious to the scorching midday heat.
“We have three footpaths that can take us to the forest from here, but we have to know what time it is in order to know which area the elephants and buffalos are headed to,” Moses Litiku tells Mongabay. He gazes at the sun. After a few minutes of consideration he settles on a route safely out of the animals’ way and then forges out, clenching his walking stick.
Litiku, a 79-year-old herbalist, grew up in Mukogodo Forest and knows it intimately. His people, the Yiaku, have inhabited and watched over the forest for centuries, as hunter-gatherers who have lately embraced herding. But it was only in the past decade that the Kenyan government officially granted them rights to the forest, as well as full responsibility for managing it. Mukogodo is the only one of Kenya’s 372 gazetted forests under the sole custodianship of an indigenous community.
The community’s approach to protecting the forest involves a strong governance system coupled with traditional religious beliefs that emphasize care for the ecosystem on which their livelihoods depend. The Yiaku have fended off illegal loggers and poachers, and forest cover has improved under their care, in stark contrast to other forests in the country, which are being lost to illegal logging and agricultural encroachment. The government, which has a decidedly mixed record when it comes to protecting both forests and the rights of forest-dwelling indigenous groups, is hailing the Yiaku’s approach as a model for other communities around the country. However, the Yiaku face a suite of challenges to their custodianship of the forest, including intensifying drought, threats of encroachment by neighboring groups, and their own dwindling connection to their traditional culture.
Defending the forest
Mukogodo Forest is a 302-square-kilometer (117-square-mile) tract of dry forest that sits in the foothills of Mount Kenya in the central part of the country, 210 kilometers (130 miles) northeast of Nairobi. Its rolling hills blanketed in native trees are home to 45 mammal species, including threatened elephants, buffaloes and leopards, as well as around 200 bird and 100 butterfly species.
Deep inside the forest, Litiku comes to a dark spot where the canopy blots out the sky. He sees freshly broken branches on a tree, then bends down to examine what looks like animal droppings. He squeezes a piece of it between his fingers, testing the moisture, then drops it.
“The elephants passed through here about three hours ago. They are now on the other side of the forest and will be returning later in the evening,” he says with a reassuring grin.
Litiku goes on to explain the Yiaku’s relationship with the forest.
“Our forefathers invoked a curse on the forest and we believe whoever cuts a tree, the curse would befall his family,” he says. “These taboos are very powerful and no one would contemplate breaking them, not even during the night.”
Litiku says Yiaku children as young as 4 are taught about the importance of the trees and behavior patterns of birds. By the time they reach 12 they can interpret various bird calls and animal behaviors to tell the presence of a predator or poacher. “For example when birds like woodpeckers chirp continuously near a homestead we know it’s a signal that we have an enemy. Furthermore, our honey harvesters communicate with honeyguide birds through whistling to establish locations of wild beehives deep inside the forest,” Litiku says.
The forest provides more than just food and the opportunity to generate income through activities like beekeeping and livestock grazing. “The forest provides us with medicinal plants; thus destroying any of these trees is putting our community in grave danger,” Litiku says, pointing at a tree he claims cures at least four ailments.
The community’s strong attachment to the sacred forest is at the heart of the Yiaku’s traditional values and practices, which they have developed into a unique governance structure to manage and regulate forest resources. As a member of the Yiaku’s 15-person council of elders, Litiku helps decide how the community uses the forest sustainably, for instance by allocating the rotation of grazing areas, formulating laws, and helping resolve disputes. The council has been a feature of Yiaku life for generations, part of the group’s traditional forest management approach that has become increasingly formalized through partnership with the Kenyan government.
Over the years, the country has enacted a raft of progressive laws aimed at bolstering existing forest conservation initiatives by bringing on board indigenous people and local communities. The Forest Act of 2005 granted these communities the rights to forest resources. A 2007 revision of the act gave communities a bigger role in forest conservation, either as co-managers or contract managers of forests. It also outlawed, on paper anyway, long-standing practices such as hunting and logging for charcoal, to maintain the forests and promote tourism.
That year, the Yiaku abandoned hunting in favor of livestock herding and beekeeping, and ventured into ecotourism, leasing out a lodge they’d built a few years earlier to an investor who established a high-end six-room tourist lodge there. Proceeds from the lease help support Mukogodo Primary School and pay Yiaku children’s school fees, forest scouts’ salaries, medical costs and community projects.
In 2008, the Yiaku formed a decision-making body known as a Community Forest Association (CFA) and entered into an official partnership with the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) to manage Mukogodo. While retaining ownership of the forest land through KFS, the government acknowledges that it is Yiaku ancestral land and guarantees the community the right to unfettered access to and use of the forest.
Under the partnership, the Yiaku CFA began work to develop a strategic management plan for forest conservation, establish tree nurseries, and act as the environment’s watchdog. It set up a team of six Yiaku forest guards, trained by the KFS, to monitor forest health and patrol for illegal activity. It also set up a team of Yiaku youth scouts, trained by the KFS, to take part in patrols and other forest conservation activities. And it established a targeted reforestation program that all community members, including children, are required to help with. Over the years the community has received funding from several NGOs for various aspects of their work to protect their rights, culture and forest.
It’s not just living trees the Yiaku value; they also have a strong passion for dead ones.
“Cutting dead tree logs that are still standing or fallen is also considered a taboo here,” James Sikong, a 27-year-old Yiaku forest guard and a member of the CFA, tells Mongabay. For one thing, the logs sometime act as beehives.
“Even if they fail to attract bees, we would rather let them decompose and add nutrients to the ground,” he says, pointing to a log that fell 20 years ago. “I remember the event very well because I was in nursery school when the tree fell on my path to school. Since then, the tree is still here,” Sikong says, adding that no Yiaku dare cut any of the many fallen logs in the forest, not even for firewood.
Sikong and the five other forest guards work closely with the youth scouts, patrolling the forest by foot on a daily basis. The guards are armed with mobile phones and heavy weaponry issued by the KFS, and the scouts carry traditional swords and batons. The latter are also engaged in herding and beekeeping, which ensures they are always in the forest.
There’s little help, other than the training, from the KFS; the primary duty of the only KFS officer assigned to Mukogodo is to coordinate logistics in case of natural disasters like wildfires. They are constantly in tune with everything happening in the forest, Lazarus Lentula, a 27-year-old forest guard leader, tells Mongabay.
“Since we are all members of this community we are in a better position to detect any encroachment or destruction of the forest,” Lentula says. When the guards or scouts spot a threat from illegal loggers or a sick wild animal, they inform the CFA immediately, as well as the relevant authorities, such as the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) or the KFS, he says. Depending on the nature of the threat, the guards and scouts can also remove offenders from the forest or arrest them and take them to the council of elders for punishment.
The Yiaku’s approach has paid off. In the decade since they took on full management responsibility for Mukogodo, the forest’s tree cover has increased from 52 percent to 70 percent, according to Stephen Mwaura, a KFS ecosystem conservator for Laikipia county. “The achievement of the Yiaku in recovering forest canopy is very impressive compared to other forests in the country, which have witnessed a high rate of deforestation between 2010 [and] 2018,” Mwaura tells Mongabay.
Although there have been no studies to confirm it, locals say wildlife has rebounded too. “Since we took over the control of the forest, the population of animals, like gazelles and antelopes, that we used to hunt for food has increased; they now roam freely to our homesteads,” Litiku says.
The community has scaled up its beekeeping in the years since it gained control of the forest, which has led to higher incomes. Access to education and medical care has also improved significantly, thanks to funding from the tourist lodge. The Yiaku are now looking to expand their honey production capacity and build another lodge.
Rights to the forest are key
Jennifer Koinante has been at the forefront of the community’s fight for recognition of its land rights as executive director of the Yiaku Laikipiak Trust, a local advocacy group. Besides keeping the forest intact, the Yiaku’s management approach has also earned them autonomy and security from the government, Koinante says, easing a threat of eviction from the forest that had loomed in 2011 following heightened political tensions in the area. The corollary is that the government’s recognition of the Yiaku’s land and forest rights renewed the community’s zeal to conserve Mukogodo. “A sense of belonging and identity … came along with recognition of our land rights and acknowledgment that the forest is our ancestral land,” Koinante says.
That sense of identity has been critical for the tiny Yiaku community of fewer than 4,000 people. “Our struggle has been long and winding, dovetailing our identity as a people and our economic rights,” she says.
Koinante’s view that recognizing indigenous peoples’ rights is the only way the government can effectively combat deforestation and poaching in the forests these people inhabit is shared by a growing body of conservationists and human rights experts. A report released in June by the U.S.-based NGO Rights and Resources Initiative and the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, found that indigenous and local communities are far more effective conservationists than governments are through protected areas; and yet those very communities are often displaced or marginalized to achieve conservation goals. “They are achieving at least equal conservation results with a fraction of the budget of protected areas, making investments in indigenous people the most efficient means of protecting forests,” the report states.
A model for other forests
In fact, the Yiaku’s guardianship of Mukogodo Forest has been hailed as the first success story in the decade since indigenous and local communities began collaborating with the Kenyan government on forest conservation. In 2015, conservationists marked World Forest Day with a celebration in Mukogodo. The model, conservationists and at least some Kenyan authorities believe, has the potential to improve Kenya’s forest cover and the livelihoods of thousands of indigenous people living in the country’s forests.
“This community model of using ancient conservation techniques has proved forest co-management with indigenous communities could be the panacea in reducing deforestation and land conflicts,” says the KFS’s Mwaura.
He says that following the Yiaku’s success, the government plans to replicate the co-management model in more than 100 other gazetted forests. The agency has already signed forest co-management agreements with 87 communities, although the Yiaku remain the only one to have full custodianship of their forest, and is in negotiations with another 68.
But the process won’t be easy, he says. Progress has been slow, considering the government began enacting laws promoting community forest management more than a decade ago: at the current rate, it would take 35 years to finalize co-management agreements for the country’s remaining 285 gazetted forests.
“Not all forest communities are well organized,” Mwaura says. “Some are known to abet logging, making it difficult to bring them on board.”
Moreover, increasingly frequent droughts, rapid population growth, high competition for food and pasture, and increasing demand for energy are driving communities into Kenya’s forests, escalating deforestation. “Population pressure and [a] scramble for grazing pasture from outsiders is proving a challenge towards introducing this model to other gazetted forests in the country,” Mwaura says.
Kenya’s deforestation problem is serious. Forests account for about 7.4 percent of Kenya’s total land area, down from 12 percent 50 years ago. In 2016 the government announced a goal to increase the country’s forest cover to 10 percent by 2022.
Jackson Bambo is the national coordinator for the Kenya Forests Working Group, a Nairobi-based coalition of governmental, nongovernmental and community groups that promotes sustainable forest management. Like Mwaura, he attributes the slow progress in bringing indigenous and local communities into forest management partly to communities taking a long time to form the required CFAs. But he lays much of the blame on the government, for failing to make clear how the communities would be compensated for their efforts, and also for dragging its heels.
“The process has been slow because the Forest Act 2005 did not have timelines and so KFS took long to set up and also to develop the necessary guidelines, forest management plans and forest management agreements,” Bambo says.
He says the Forest Conservation and Management Act, from 2016, addresses the issue of incentives, as well as gender representation, and ensures communities will have access to finances through a designated trust fund. He says he’s hopeful this will move the process forward. “The new law ensures communities’ interests are taken into account. We expect to see more communities willing to collaborate with authorities in the war against deforestation,” Bambo says.
For many indigenous communities, the Kenyan government has a long way to go. Even as it has recognized the Yiaku’s land and forest rights and encouraged them to take control of their ancestral forest, it has been evicting other indigenous forest dwellers, often violently.
For instance, the Sengwer and the Ogiek, both hunter-gatherer groups in the west of the country, have for years fought for their land rights and demanded to be involved in the management of their ancestral forests. Yet they remain in conflict with the authorities, who blame them for forest destruction. Earlier this year the European Union suspended a $35 million conservation project after the Kenyan government violently evicted Sengwer communities from a forest they claim.
Moreover, Kenya’s forest authorities have a severe credibility problem. Amid a public outcry this year over rapid deforestation, the government imposed a nationwide ban on logging that has been extended until next November, and fired the head of the KFS. In April, a government task force appointed to study the issue released a scathing report that held the KFS itself largely responsible for the loss of forest cover, saying officers turning a blind eye or in some cases even participated in illegal logging. “The Kenya forest service has institutionalized corruption and the system is replete with deep-rooted corruptive practices, lack of accountability and unethical behavior,” the report states.
New threats, new approaches
Against the backdrop of this turbulent national scene, the Yiaku face challenges of their own.
One is mounting pressure on Mukogodo Forest from neighboring communities, intensified by climate change. The region has been gripped by a series of droughts in recent years that are lasting longer and becoming more intense. A racially charged conflict flared up last year between pastoralist communities and private ranchers near Mukogodo over dwindling pasture and water points. The drought forced Samburu herders to move into Mukogodo from the north in search of pasture, leaving a trail of destruction in the forest.
Over the years, the Yiaku have had a management plan that allocated these pastoralists some grazing land in designated parts of the forest during the dry seasons. The arrangement has helped mitigate conflict for ages, ensuring the pastoralists’ herds don’t destroy the forest, according to Koinante. But Yiaku leaders fear the herders’ recent defiance of the agreement could fuel conflict and open the way for illegal loggers, jeopardizing the forest’s health and the community’s hard-earned rights to the forest.
“We want the government to intervene during such incidences so that they can help us safeguard the forest resources,” Koinante says.
One tool the Yiaku have come up with in response to these emerging challenges is a three-dimensional map of the forest. The Yiaku have used it to identify which areas to reforest and what tree species to plant. They’ve also used it to highlight the porous stretches of the forest’s boundaries, so they can determine where to mount beehives to keep intruders away. “You can’t cut trees where there are bees, for fear of being attacked,” Koinante says.
Another imminent challenge is the Yiaku’s precarious position as a people. While conservationists tout the community’s traditional forest conservation practices as a solution to Kenya’s deforestation problem, fears are emerging that those very traditions could be fast dying.
The small community has been assimilating to the culture of its pastoral Maasai neighbors, to the extent that they are often referred to as Mukogodo Maasai. Only two Yiaku people now speak their language, Yakunte, fluently, and UNESCO has classified it as extinct.
To ensure the Yiaku culture and ecological knowledge don’t die with the elders, the community has initiated several projects.
“We are identifying, collecting and documenting this knowledge to safeguard it for future generations,” Koinante says. “Already we have started Yiaku classes where the young are taught traditions and culture by the elders.”
The community also recently built a museum to document and preserve their traditional knowledge for future generations. But it was destroyed together with the 3D map last year by the invading Samburu herders. According to Koinante, the herders used the museum as an encampment and everything in it as fuel for cooking and warmth. The Yiaku are now in the process of recreating the map and looking for a safer location near settlements to rebuild the museum, she says.
For now, the Yiaku’s model appears to be working. Whether it can survive in the long run depends on how well the community navigates the conflicts induced by climate change and how fast it can come up with a way to keep its culture vital.
Shadrack Kavilu is a freelance environmental journalist based in Nairobi. He has published in local and international media outlets, including the Mail and Guardian and Thomson Reuters Foundation News.