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In some of his recent remarks, the Deputy President of Kenya, Rigathi Gachagua, mentioned the potential of working with farmers in forest areas to produce food and reverse our currently perilous food security situation. His political mettle was instantly tested by the volume (if not the technical content) of the protests that followed. As an environmental policy specialist, I was intrigued by the responses, but this soon gave way to despair as I realized that the vast majority of the commentary (and the most raucous) came from people who didn’t seem to have the faintest idea what they were talking about. Sadly, this included op-eds written in major news publications. This majority rightly lamented the low proportion of forest cover in Kenya (currently standing at 7.2 per cent) and how we couldn’t afford to lose any more of it. This emanated from a strange belief that the proposals were to cut down forests in order to create room for agriculture and the failure to understand that what they were discussing was actually a scheme for expansion of forest cover.

The language and tone also pointed to an urban, middle-class demographic that is psychologically far removed from nature, other than as a playground. Some even pointed to the excision of forests that occurred during the Daniel Moi presidency as an effect of the “shamba system”, rather than simple impunity. Never mind that the DP’s remarks were in reference to a scheme introduced in the Forest Act of 2005, after Moi left office. Because of my well-known opposition to foreign NGO control of our natural resources, I posed a public question on a social media platform suggesting that the presence of local forest users might be a deterrent to this kind of annexation. The comments this elicited ranged from outrage at my suggestion that people be allowed to use forests rather than be kept out, to open declarations that NGO annexation is a better outcome than forests “being grabbed” by locals. To me, the most startling aspect of the (non-factual) noise, however, was the absurdity of the elite visiting opprobrium on the proletariat for excesses perpetrated by the elite themselves.

This level of self-contradiction at a societal scale is typical of Kenyans’ thinking around natural heritage, because almost 60 years into our nationhood, we haven’t shaken off the romantic Western paradigm that designates our natural heritage as chattel. We are therefore unable to value these resources intrinsically or based on what they mean to us, as opposed to what a foreigner will pay to see, own or destroy them. What foreigners and their interests do is never questioned by this “passionate” elite. For instance, there is a radioactive materials dump in a fenced, labelled concrete structure in the forest right at the Naro Moru gate to Mt. Kenya National park. All the elite visitors to the park cannot miss it on their way in, but I have never once heard or read a word about it, other than what I have personally said and written.

There is a radioactive materials dump in a fenced, labelled concrete structure in the forest right at the Naro Moru gate to Mt. Kenya National park.

In over two decades’ experience in the conservation sector, I have visited all the different forest biomes in this country and one indisputable fact is the vast spectrum of biotic, edaphic, environmental and human factors around them. There is no single, one-size-fits-all policy or management action that is either applicable or not applicable across all forests. Yet, judging from the vast majority (and most strident) of voices against the so-called “shamba system”, the fortress conservation movement has successfully spread a single crisis story about the policy that has been taken up in its entirety by the lay population, including the false “corporate ownership” narrative.

The plaintive cry from elites for peasant farmers to keep out of “our” forests is bizarre in the way it perceives locals as interlopers and places the non-farming population in the exalted position of “ownership” as conservationists. As is the case in other fields, Kenyans have learned very well from the prejudiced forest management playbook written by the colonial government in the mid-20th century. Forests were to be used by tourists, hunters (before the change in law) and fly fishermen, but not those seeking fuelwood, food items, medicinal plants, etc. Basically elite lifestyle pursuits were given precedence over local livelihoods, a paradigm that remains unchanged over a century later. This policy position instantly criminalized forest-dependent or forest-resident communities like the Ogiek, Sengwer, and Ndorobo, a disadvantaged position that has persisted to this day. As a field biologist studying wildlife, my training always required that I be a keen observer of my environment for both professional and safety reasons. Having carried this into the policy field where I primarily work currently, it is obvious that Kenya’s natural heritage has become a “white space” where even the normally power-retentive Government of Kenya has strangely relinquished its authority to Western interests.

As is the case in other fields, Kenyans have learned very well from the prejudiced forest management playbook written by the colonial government in the mid-20th century.

I have written extensively elsewhere about the reasons for this so in this instance, I will focus on the residual effects of this abdication on the Kenyan psyche. Indigenous Kenyans have been successfully deleted from the intellectual arena surrounding our natural heritage. The profiteering from Kenya’s natural heritage either through tourism investments or donor funds has therefore become inextricably anchored in the absence of black people, or the myth of “wilderness”. This was the basis of the creation of national parks by the colonial administration and the establishment of “protected areas” under various other guises in post-independence Kenya.

In order to have any sensible discourse on this issue, we must get on to the same page as per the definition of what we’re casually referring to as the “shamba system”. The official terminology used by the state authority is PELIS (Plantation Establishment and Livelihood Improvement Scheme). Basically, this is a scheme introduced after enactment of the Forest Act of 2005, with implementation beginning in 2007. Local or “forest adjacent” communities are the primary beneficiaries of the scheme where they are temporarily allocated plots upon which they plant seedlings, tend them until they form a canopy while practicing agriculture on the allocated plots. The farming is done under the supervision of the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and their officers, who also determine when the tenure of the allottees ends and they must move out, with reference to the growth of the trees.

Looking at the spirit of this law, it is a welcome acknowledgement that indigenous people in Kenya depend upon natural resources for their livelihoods, and this includes rangelands, wetlands and forests. The state conservation structures in Kenya that were contrived by the colonial government were based on the Victorian gamekeeper model, where natural heritage was reserved for the edification of the elite at the expense of the proletariat. Needless to say, in rural African societies, which had their own natural resource use norms, the application of this model required perpetual, slow-burning violence in the form of fences, strict laws, armed guards and assorted forms of retribution for those in breach. From the mid-19th century, Kenya adopted this system to establish tree plantations by means of cheap or totally free labour, in order to meet the demand for timber.

The initial “shamba system” was introduced as a way to press locals into providing labour to supply firewood in “exchange” for farms in the early 20th century, and persisted in that format for several decades. After independence the narrative was adjusted to include seeking to involve landless communities in forest conservation, and by the 1980s, problems associated with the system started emerging, particularly the encroachment of exotic monocultures of cypress, pine, and eucalyptus. These exotics were planted to supply timber, paper pulp, and other wood products. The thriving tea estates are notable drivers of plantations, because (eucalyptus) wood fires are still the only method used for curing tea.

Under the regime of Daniel arap Moi (1978-2002), there existed a situation where the executive had absolute power to excise and de-gazette forest lands at will, basically for agriculture and settlement. On paper, these were described as actions to settle the poor or landless people, but on the ground, forest land became political currency, used by the high and mighty to reward themselves and their cronies. Philosophically, it is vital to note here that the destruction of forests was driven, perpetrated and normalized by the elite, who accepted the tea estates, tourism and recreational facilities thus established. The proletariat were as always, kept away by means of state violence. Our society’s inability to mentally traverse the two decades and presidencies that have gone by between the Moi era and now, is partly due to our indolence and the manner in which the media is treating the issue. A notable example of this is a report by Citizen TV on 25th September 2022 headlined “DP Gachagua pledges return of Moi-era shamba system”. Mainstream media in Kenya has rarely been distinguished as a driver of sensible public discourse.

The advent of PELIS under the new Forest act of 2005 therefore was intended to mitigate the violence, restore the lost resource rights to a certain degree, and most importantly provide livelihoods and contribute to Kenya’s food security by structuring forest usage. The importance of a policy underpinning the use of forests cannot be overstated because food cultivation is only one facet of it. People use forests for non-timber products like honey, medicinal plants, fruits, vegetables, and pasture.

The nature of forests in Kenya is extremely varied, from the tropical rainforest in Kakamega, to montane forests in Mt. Kenya, dry highland forests in Samburu, coastal delta forests, and mangrove forests. Not all these forests are used by local communities in the same way, and the PELIS scheme is only applicable to the restoration of forests that have already suffered damage from illegal activities, and to plantation buffer zones that surround indigenous forests. It is inapplicable, for example, in the saltwater mangrove forests or the rocky dry highland forests. There are some forest like Giitune forest in Meru, or Kiagonga gia Agikuyu in Nyeri, which are recognized by both the state and communities as sacred and cannot be used for PELIS, regardless of government policy. There are also the dry highland forests in the arid North, which are more important as dry season pastures, rather than arable land because of the prevailing climate and wildlife populations therein. Sadly, though, most of the latter have been annexed by amorphous entities called “conservancies” which deny their owners access to these resources in favour of tourism investors and buccaneers involved in the global money-laundering scheme known as “carbon trade”.

Under the regime of Daniel arap Moi, there existed a situation where the executive had absolute power to excise and de-gazette forest lands at will.

PELIS is far from universally applicable in all forests but its importance (apart from enhancing food security) cannot be overstated as a policy platform on which forest-adjacent communities can negotiate and build their user rights. The ongoing furore has also laid bare the abject failure of KFS to educate the wider public about the details and provisions of this crucial policy. On the surface this may look like basic negligence, but it may also be a deliberate political effort to roll the policy back in favour of the elites and NGOs who are the primary beneficiaries of unutilized forests and who have a strong foothold in the KFS management. Whatever the case, this studious silence is unacceptable from a taxpayer-funded state authority.

Kenya is currently in the process of transition to a new government, and this may well be an opportunity for us citizens to revisit the way in which we relate to our natural resources and embrace the complexity thereof. We aren’t tenants here; we are the owners of this heritage. Neither are we immigrants, because Kenya is widely acknowledged to be the cradle of mankind. We must disabuse ourselves of the Western notion that “Africa is a village” with uniform problems that require universally applicable external solutions. Even at country level, Kenya’s forests, landscapes and ecosystems are extremely varied, requiring a more sophisticated management approach than the simplistic tools that were imposed by exploitative foreigners a century ago. The reason why our natural resource management is so costly is because the methods we employ are largely unsustainable and exogenous. This is why the boards of the state authorities in charge of our natural heritage are never free from the consumers of the said resources and are so reluctant to speak on the rights of local users. Hopefully, the state authorities will also become agile enough to take considered positions on policy implementation and take responsibility for changing or modifying these positions as and when necessary.

The ongoing furore has also laid bare the abject failure of KFS to educate the wider public about the details and provisions of this crucial policy.

There is a famous market near Kinale on the Nairobi-Naivasha highway named “Soko Mjinga” because of the prices of produce there that used to be ridiculously low. What’s undeniable is the quality and quantity of fruits and vegetables on sale there, in addition to the substantial amount that is transported daily for sale at Wakulima Market in Nairobi. It is a favourite shopping stop for Nairobi elites who drive along that road with their families. This urban elite group have been the most vociferous in opposing peasant farming around forests, yet at least 70 of  per cent of the produce they so love to buy at Soko Mjinga is produced under the PELIS programme in the Kereita and Kieni forests. You’d be hard pressed to find a more elegant snapshot of the dissonance that ails our understanding of our own natural heritage.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.