Earth Hour – Kenya style

Chepngaina Primary School children
Chepngaina Primary School children

While Namibia was celebrating Earth Hour in Zambezi Region with a focus on biodiversity, other events took place worldwide and, of course, across Africa. Steve Felton reports from Kenya, where he is visiting.

Trees connect us to earth

In rural Kenya the motorcycle taxi – the bodo – carries anything from people, to goats and market produce. Even trees. At Chepngaina Primary School in Bomet County, just four days after Earth Hour, bodos were arriving with saplings ready to plant in the school grounds: the first instalment of a billion trees planned for Kenya by WWF.

Fourth former Titus Korir wields a jembe to dig with practiced ease. Like the other pupils digging holes for the new trees, he has a good idea of the reasons for planting trees on their farms. Taking a break from digging they chip in with ideas: “Trees conserve water. They help to bring rainfall. They produce medicines and are needed for firewood and construction. They create windbreaks" and, crucially, "they prevent erosion of the soil.”

Joseph Chebusit is Chairman of the Amala Water Resources Users Association– one of 26 WRUAs in the central area of Kenya, and he cares deeply about erosion. At the Amala tree nursery his ever-cheerful smile disappears as he relates the sad death of two children the day before in Narok County, just down the road. They were swept away by a mudslide on a riverbank, caused by decades of tree cutting and subsequent erosion of the soil.

In the past, says Joseph, the whole area was covered with trees. Now even hillsides are deforested. Trees were felled for cooking, building, and to create pasture for livestock. Joseph’s theme was taken up at the school tree planting ceremony in a speech from the Governor of Bomet County, who pointed out that Kenya has lost half of its trees in the last 50 years. The aim of the billion tree campaign is to raise Kenya’s tree coverage from just 12.5% to 30% – and to “Keep Kenya Breathing”.

The Amala WRUA, supported by WWF Kenya, aims to prevent erosion by planting trees, but also to provide trees for farmers to use economically. The key is the sustainable use of the right kind of trees. “When I was young there were many tree species, some medicinal,” says Joseph. “There were special trees for firewood and building and fencing. We have lost a lot of Cedar, Olea Africana & Arcacia. We want to stop erosion" and, paradoxically, "we want to sell wood.”

Preventing erosion means persuading farmers to change their tilling practices. Simple ideas like ploughing along the hillside, instead of up it, make a big difference. A farmer may only have a small piece of land to till, but if part of it is on a river bank, that area can be used for pasturage, and better still, trees can be planted there.

We teach farmers “pole pole” – Joseph uses the Swahili expression for slowly, “and we help them to make money by supplying fruit trees.” The WRUA staff collect indigenous tree seeds. Others are bought from KEFRI, a government agency. After the saplings have grown to about a metre high in the nursery, they are sold to farmers, who later reap the economic rewards of Hass avacado and apple mango, both sold commercially to markets in Europe, and the high yielding Tissue Culture banana for local sale.

The Amala WRUA was created in 2003. It has 23 board members who represent the whole area, which is an advantage when calling meetings to sensitize farmers on the prevention of erosion and the advantages of tree planting. WWF has been “a friend”, says Joseph, from the beginning. It funded the land for the nursery and donated money for an office and hall, which is sometimes hired out to bring in income.

The Kenya country office of WWF made tree planting the key theme of Earth Hour for 2018. The annual world-wide event has gone ‘Beyond the Hour’ in recent years, and aims to get people to consider biodiversity and to ‘Connect to Earth’ again. Planting a billion trees in Kenya is certainly a way for people to connect with the earth and its soil in a very practical manner.

The Bomet County Environment Minister told the children at Chepngaina Primary School how she planted trees when she was a pupil, and the pride she feels when she goes back to see the tall trees growing. If everybody in Bomet County would plant three trees, she said, that would add up to two and a half million.

Joseph Chebusit was at the school for the tree planting, and appreciated what the local government representatives were saying. They stressed the economic importance of fruit trees, and the value of indigenous species. They also mentioned poor practices, such as planting Eucaliptus, which draws too much water from its deep roots and can damage sensitive water aquifers. “It’s a start for planting in our homesteads,” he said.

The Amala Water Resources User’s Association has been running for fifteen years. Joseph is looking forward to the next fifteen. He has hopes for a small hotel or lodging house, which will help the association to stand on its own feet economically. WWF funding has been a great help, he said, but the aim is to make tree planting fully sustainable. The school event was a great start, and Bomet County Governor’s message was that the billion tree campaign is not just for WWF – it is for everyone.

Steve Felton
Joseph Chebusit in the nursery
Titus Korir wields a jembe
A billiion trees for Kenya
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