Kenya’s last hunter-gatherers in Coast face extinction

by May 21, 2012Wildlife News

THEY have been the inhabitants of the Boni Dodori forest for ages but that is set to change. The minority Boni group has been living in the forest, and all they know is forest life. “Our ancestors used to sell ivory and meat. When explorers came to this part of the world and asked where they were sold, they were told ‘Kiamboni’; that’s how the name Boni came to be,” said headman Cheka Mohammed.

The Mangai area is located 45km to Kiunga on the Kenya-Somalia border. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Boni-Dodori forest ecosystem is one of the most fragile ecosystems on the continent. A recent tour by WWF officials and the media exposed how the forest has been going through levels of deforestation and degradation and which, if not arrested, will lead to serious and potentially irreversible damage to the ecosystem.

Locals believe that they cannot go past the Dodori forest, as wildebeests and man-eaters will make a meal out of them! So backward in terms of development is the area that the residents still hide in bushes when strangers approach. “Despite being the headman, I have never seen the inside of a classroom. The first school in this area was constructed in 1963, but we didn’t get enough sensitisation to make us go to school.The Shifta problem in the 1980s compounded the problem,” said Mohammed.

The Boni Dodori Forest Game Reserve also has its fair share of challenges. The locals are not aware of the existing boundaries between them and the reserve. “We need to get titles for the sections we hold. We have noticed that of late there is massive logging to pave way for developers as they strategise ahead of the new Lamu Port construction,” he added.

According to Khadija Mohammed, another resident, one of the few organisations operating in the area is Kiboo. The group has been instrumental in ensuring locals protect the forest through conservation while at the same time earning their living from various projects within the forest, including beekeeping and farming. Khadija notes, “We cannot go about cutting trees like what we have started seeing around. We know without the trees, we shall have no rain, so it is our duty to plant more and more, but this is going to change due to the new port as trees are being felled to pave way for the planned construction of the Lamu port.”

There are five villages in the area -Mangai, Basuba, Kiango, Milimani and Shungwaya – having inhabitants distributed into nine clans and less than 1,000 people. According to the WWF country director, Mohammed Awer, Boni forest lies in the Dodori forest complex, and is the last pristine environment in the region. WWF has raised an alarm over the development of the Lamu port, saying if not handled well, it may have disastrous impact to the environment.

Awer noted that the wanton destruction of trees in the area by land grabbers ready to make a kill ahead of the Lamu Port and Lamu Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (Lapsset) is alarming. Awer stressed that stakeholders engaging in any developments should ensure they protect the ecosystem, and also outline how locals will benefit as this is a shared vision. “Look at how much the ecosystem is being destroyed, hundreds of trees are being cut down since people know the area now has potential,” he said.

During the tour, in which the officials were checking on aspects that will impact on the minority Boni-Dodori community, WWF officials announced that they would partner with other stakeholders for meaningful development in the area. “The large pristine environment at Boni-Dodori will be changed any time from now and the unfortunate part is that some of the effects may be negative,” said Awer.

He noted that increased movement of people from other parts of the country to the area is due to the scramble for land. Awer said development should be done in a systematic way, as it is bound to open up the region, but should not compromise the existence and development of other projects.

The area is mostly occupied by the Bajunis, Boni and Swahilis, who are minorities, and he insisted that their interests should be safeguarded. “There are so many challenges here, but we still try to maintain our forest, and we ask that our issues are looked into, so that we are at par with the rest of the country,” Khadija said.

According to WWF, the Boni National Reserve was gazetted primarily as a dry season refuge for elephants and other wildlife in 1976, and covers 1,340 km2 of indigenous coastal forest, including significant concentrations of economically valuable hardwoods and numerous keynote species, many of which are classified as vulnerable or endangered.

It lies wholly within Ijara district and with its north-eastern boundary adjoining the Somali border, opening out into acacia bush towards the west where sizeable herds of buffalo – 1,000 plus – and associated predators (e.g. lion, leopards, and hyenas) are found. South of the Boni National Reserve, in Lamu district, is the Dodori National Reserve which was established in 1976 to protect amongst other things the major breeding grounds of the Lamu topi. It comprises 880 km2 of mangrove swamp, lowland dry forest, marshy glades and groundwater forest, and is bisected by the Dodori River.

Separating and adjacent to the National Reserves and straddling the districts of Lamu and Ijara are the Boni and Lungi forests. It is through these two forests that the only road to Kiunga and the border runs, and along which the current settlements of the Boni people are situated.

In a report by WWF, drafted by Mike Morris and Kiunga Kareko, it was noted that even after the end of the Shifta War in 1967 when ethnic Somalis in Kenya’s Northern Frontier District attempted to secede and become part of the Republic of Somalia, lawlessness and insecurity continued to plague the area. The plundering of villages led to a mass exodus of the coastal Bajuni people who either moved to the safety of the islands or southwards to Lamu town. Most of the Boni people, one of Kenya’s last hunter-gather groups and possibly no more than 3,000 individuals, were relocated to makeshift camps along the government controlled Hindi-Kiunga road, where they still remain.

The forest communities, whose lives and livelihoods are interwoven with the forest landscape of the Boni-Dodori ecosystem, stand in the frontline of the consequences of any environmental destruction. Said Awer, “While these people are already poor and the most vulnerable to the effects of further degradation of the forest, they are also the most familiar with the forest, and well placed to inform and contribute to any initiative meant to conserve the Boni-Dodori forest ecosystem.”

WWF plans to develop support for an integrated approach with and between local people and other partners so as to realise the shared vision of protecting the environment. “A working coalition between communities and key players and organisations is better able to overcome the institutional constraints that often impede rural development, and deliver change,” he added.