Kenya: Kijabe's bleak future

Loggers have almost wiped out Kijabe forest strip and experts predict if this does not stop, landslides will follow.

Thousands of people and one of Kenya’s largest mission hospitals face threat of a landslide and rampant face water shortages following systematic destruction of an indigenous forest. Experts have already warned the community around Kijabe they not only face a dry future, but mudslides may start. This follows unbridled logging that has claimed 85 per cent of Kijabe forest, according to several estimates.

Once among the greenest places in Kenya, the ridged locality is now slowly turning into a windy savannah. “If the remaining forest goes, then we are all gone,” says David Mwangi, an elder who has lived here for more than 30 years.

More than 110,000 people live around Kijabe area in Lari, which until recently was the largest and poorest division in Kiambu County. The now desecrated Kijabe strip forest is one of the six blocks that make up the 37,620ha Kikuyu escarpment forest.

It begins about 80 kilometres away from Nairobi with the rim touching the Nakuru highway. It then fades away toward the Maai Mahiu Road downhill. Most of it has slowly been destroyed by loggers and charcoal burners who, locals say, are competing every night for the remaining patches above Kijabe Mission. Mwangi says the bushes that travellers from Nairobi encounter on Maai Mahiu Road were once a thick forest.

He says the loggers are brave and fierce, and that locals fear them. Only the church is fighting back.”We have to fight, even if it means forgetting that we are pastors and become radicals,” says Mwangi.

Locals claim early this year a train headed to Nairobi stopped at the Kijabe forest, and was loaded with cedar poles. “Who ordered the train to stop deep in the forest?” he asks.

Another one claims recently some boys saw a Kenya Forest Service ranger helping women carry gunny bags full of illegal charcoal in the forest. The Kenya Forest Working Group says the destruction is so bad that a landslide seems inevitable. “It is not a case of it is going to happen but when,” says KFWG co-ordinator Rudolf Makhanu. KFWG is a 17-year-old network of local and international groups interested in forests, and operates under the East African Wildlife Society. Makhanu says almost the entire Kijabe area lies along a dangerously steep escarpment that for years stood only because the trees held it together.

Kijabe comprises two places. There is Kijabe Town located about two kilometres north-west of Kijabe Mission Station. The mission station is the home of the popular AIC Kijabe Hospital, Cure Hospital, Moffatt Bible College, and Rift Valley Academy, a school for children of missionaries established in 1906.

Makhanu laments that a few “criminals” have colluded with locals to cut down the trees without considering the outcome. “Olea Africana is completely gone and most of the Cedars and Cape Chestnut,” he says. KFWG says trees on Kijabe forest strip are felled daily but the KFS has either little capacity or no enthusiasm to police the punishing terrain.

Indeed small charcoal kilns dot the forest and thin trails of smoke are visible from down the valley. Makhanu says the area has become windy and efforts to reafforest will be difficult. “Farmers do not know they rely on the micro-climate created by trees to farm. They are very important for ecosystem services including soil conservation,” he says. The experts say River Ruiru, which stems from the forest, has already dried up and the Kijabe Hot-springs may not last long.

The 98-year-old AIC Kijabe Hospital is also facing water shortages for the first time in its history. Hospital Executive Director Mary Njeri Muchedu told the Star nowadays they get water only four days a week. She says they previously got water from Kamahindu stream in the forest, but it is now struggling to even flow.

Emy Springs, also in the forest, only has half the water it produced 10 years ago. “We have two boreholes but one has completely dried up while the other is producing very little water. I think the water table has really gone down,” she says.

At least 1,000 surgeries are done at AIC Kijabe Hospital, making it Kenya’s second biggest hospital (in surgical operations) after the Kenyatta National Hospital. Muchedu says they see at least 600,000 patients every year. It is a level five hospital, similar to a provincial hospital in the public sector, and no one wants to imagine water shortage there. Next to it is another hospital called AIC Cure Hospital, which mainly cares for children with disabilities.

Muchedu says locals are already being affected by the warming climate. “We never used to have malaria but now we have treated nets even in the hospital,” she says. Seasons that would be rainy in the past are nowadays mostly dry, she adds.

Amenities like water in the two hospitals and other institutions in Kijabe Mission are managed by a central body called the Kijabe Station management. Head of those services, James Kagai, is an angry man.

He says their efforts to challenge the loggers have not succeeded with most claiming they are simply eking out a living. “We would want them to get an economic activity like bee-keeping so they leave the forest. People should also practice agroforestry and use those trees for charcoal or firewood,” he says.

But one resident, Geoffrey Kimani, disagrees with the loggers. He says it is lose-lose situation because their families will have nothing to eat once the forest is gone. “We fear we’ll not have water soon because there are many organisations surrounding the forest,” he says.

Although more than 110,000 people are directly affected by the forest destruction, thousands others will suffer downstream. “Just a few people should not be allowed to ruin the future of the entire community,” says Craig Sorley, director of Care of Creation, Kenya chapter. Craig grew up in Kenya and laments that Kijabe has lost 80 per cent of forest cover in 30 years.

He was featured in Time Magazine’s 2008 special report on the global “eco-pioneers fighting for a cleaner, greener future”. He says as a young person he would picnic in the forest, but most of it is now just bushy.

According to Time Magazine, his conversion to conservation came after doctors removed a tumour from his brain in 1989. Sorley says he “sensed a very clear call” to find out what Christians were doing to solve the world’s environmental problems. “Miti ni Mali and we should conserve it,” he says. “If we don’t, what a legacy are we going to have for our children?”

This is the question frustrating locals. They strongly believe it is their lives, not just their legacy, that is at risk. They have organised themselves under a group called Kijabe Environment Volunteers to fight the destruction and plant trees. Some have severally toyed with the idea of storming the forest at night to arrest the loggers. There are claims those loggers are well armed and such a confrontation would be bloody. Meanwhile, a new trail of smoke goes up in the forest. Someone has prepared another charcoal kiln. It means another tree has gone down.

http://www.the-star.co.ke