Regenerating the Karima Sacred Forest
The streams stopped flowing, the rivers just dried up, the forest was completely changing as all the water was consumed by these imposter trees. William Gachunia, Karima Community
The Karima Sacred Forest is set on a hill in the heart of the Nyeri district of Kenya, located between the sacred Kiriinyaga Mountain (Mt. Kenya) and Nyandarua (Aberdare ranges).
The main ethnic group in the area is the Agikuyu who are mostly small scale subsistence farmers with a total population of 19,000 inhabitants. The traditional farming system was primarily 'slash and burn' which had minimal consequences on the ecosystem, because it gave time for regeneration. This community has strong cultural and religious values and relationship with the forest, anchored in their story of origin and laws of origin. Their knowledge system and language are also deeply rooted in their sacred forest.
The Forest together with the adjacent territory was governed traditionally by four clans: Ngai, Maigua, Gitene and Kirumwa, who are the descendants of the great ancestors Mbaire and his wife Nyakaguku. By 1900 there was an advanced, elaborate and systematic rotational governance of Karima Forest by the four houses, based on the seasons. Despite the demarcations, the top and steep walls of the hill remained completely communal. Each clan was allocated two consecutive seasons to ensure that the community's statutes governing collective access to the hill's 'resources' were respected.
The sacred Forest was central to their goverance system. A revered peace tree was selected under whose shade the Elders settled disputes and facilitated reconciliation. A sacred tree, preferably a fig, was identified for prayers and sacrifices to God in the face of drought, epidemics and locust invasions. Annual ceremonies cleansed the forest, homestead and other activities. Under the informal constitution and principles of governance of the four clans, it was against the principles of common good to, for example: fight over the hill or her 'resources', tamper with the source of Gakina River, cut down living trees or kill wild animals.
In the late 1950's, colonial settlers uprooted the majority of the diverse indigenous trees which made up the forest, and in their place planted eucalyptus trees for commercial use. Eucalyptus is not native to the area and so the communities refer to it as an 'exotic' imposter. The forest used to be a bounty of diversity and was the source of at least 26 streams and small rivers which supplied water for the surrounding area. Over the last fifty years, since the eucalyptus was planted, only eight rivers now remain. The other streams have all but dried up as the moisture-guzzling imposter species has sucked the forest dry, changed the climate of the area and destroyed the biodiversity of this vital ecosystem.
William Gachunia lives in Karima and recalls how the forest once was: "When I was a small boy I attended a school at the foot of this forest. We would come and play up here in the water, swimming in a natural dam in the middle of the forest. Beautiful rivers would run down the hill and we would have so much fun. The cutting down of the indigenous trees for exotic varieties such as the eucalyptus had already begun - it started in 1955 - but at this point the effects weren't yet noticeable. The effects really showed themselves in the 80's and worsened in the twenty years that followed. The streams stopped flowing, the rivers just dried up, the forest was completely changing as all the water was consumed by these imposter trees. That's when the conservationists began to take note and it's since then that we have been working with the community to reverse this grave situation. Those who planted the trees felt strongly that they were needed for commercial gain - for furniture and homes. We know that the water and biodiversity is far more important, and that's what we've been fighting for."
In 2005 Gaia and African Biodiversity Network partner, the PORINI Association, began to work with the local community living at the foot of the forest. They discussed how the forest once was, shared stories of the past and hopes for the future. The Elders of the community were deeply saddened by the changes they had witnessed in the forest in their lifetime, and had felt helpless against these forces. They desperately wanted to find a way to return the forest to its former state and its former beauty. With the support of PORINI, the community, and a number of Elders, began to meet regularly to analyse their situation and find solutions to the challenges they were faced with. Over time, they formed the Karima Ka Athiageni a Mbair Association - a community group who have since been coming together to regenerate their Sacred Karima Forest.
Tetu Maingi, Co-ordinator for the PORINI Association, has been working closely with the Karima community group over the past six years in order to help encourage these dialogues and developments. For him, this is also an important personal journey as he grew up in the neighbouring Murang'a County, near to Karima forest. He recalls the changes he has witnessed: "the effect of what's going on in Karima is being felt beyond this place. When I was a small boy we used Karima forest as our weather gauge. If we saw clouds over Karima then we knew that it meant rain was on the way. But we don't see the clouds over Karima any more. The indigenous trees were a catalyst to pull the moisture from the surrounding mountain atmosphere, but now the eucalyptus has taken all of the moisture from the forest. It has changed this micro-climate."
The indigenous trees were a catalyst to pull the moisture from the surrounding mountains but now the eucalyptus has taken all of the moisture from the forest. It has changed this micro-climate. Tetu Maingi, Porini Association
In 2010, as the community group felt the confidence to demand real change for the future of the forest, they decided to register themselves formerly as a Community Based Organisation (CBO). They then began to liaise with the local council about the damaging effects of the eucalyptus. They used evidence from a local conservation organisation, who had officially documented how the exotic trees had impacted negatively on the Karima Forest and the environment of the region more widely, to support their analysis.
Some six years since the seeds of discussion around the future of the forest began, the Karima community has much to celebrate. After extensive negotiation, the Karima community has started to negotiate with the local town council to hear their voices and realise that something must be done in order to revive the Karima forest. In May 2011 the council officially started the process of enriching the sacred forest with a diverse range of indigenous species. The reversal of the fortunes of the Karima Forest, and the communities who depend upon it, has now finally begun to take root.
The forest related wholly to the communities way of life in terms of their food systems, their spirituality and their social systems. Its importance to them cannot be underestimated. Tetu Maingi, Porini Association
Change Takes Root
Now, local tree surgeons and the wider community are embarking upon the mammoth task of felling the eucalyptus. Once this exotic species has been cleared, the exciting process of planting indigenous saplings in their place can begin, thus marking the end of a 50-year reign of eucalyptus in the Karima Sacred Forest.
Over 20,000 indigenous tree saplings will be planted over the course of the next two years. The saplings for the enrichment programme are being grown and supplied by women from nearby tree nurseries set up by Gaia partner, the Green Belt Movement: founded and directed by Nobel Prize Laureate and long-term Gaia associate Wangari Maathai. Women from the Green Belt Movement's nurseries will be supplying a steady stream of saplings to the Karima re-planting project over the course of the next twenty-four months. This is an exciting and encouraging process in which two Gaia and African Biodiversity Network partners - the PORINI Association and the Green Belt Movement - are working together to meet the goals of both organisations.
Preparation of the planting ground, and the re-planting of the indigenous saplings themselves, are both labour intensive processes. Jobs have been created and so the community finally gain some small recompense from the exotic trees that have, up to this point, caused nothing but damage. Due to the lack of natural water sources in the forest - because of the draining effects of the eucalyptus - a small dam has also had to be created to aid the re-planting process. The dam holds the necessary water to ensure that the sapling trees will survive.
The Karima Ka Aithiangeni A Mbaire Community Based Organisation (CBO) has been energised by this victory and are pleased to have started entering into a positive relationship with the local council, and to have their voices heard. John Kwirika Mbuthia, Chairman of Karima Ka Aithiangeni A Mbaire CBO explains: "Those of us who live around the hill are very grateful that we are working with the council to replant the indigenous trees. We are pleased that they are taking care of this forest with us. It took us a number of meetings and negotiations to be heard and to get this far, but we are very pleased that we made it. The town clerk has promised that he will work with the community for the good of the community. Working together is vital for the future of this forest and community."
Councillor Wanjau of the Local Town Council has been visiting the forest and community regularly in order to oversee the felling and re-planting process. At a meeting held in June 2011 he explained to the Committee of Elders that "The aim of the council is to return the forest to its original state. We shall start by clearing the eucalyptus and we will continue until we restore the beauty of this forest once again. We have a plan that once we have re-planted all of the indigenous trees and removed all of the exotic trees, there will be a big celebration for the whole community. We are all excited for that day."
Threat of uprooting
In 2010, the Town Council of Othaya (TOC), assisted by the Kenya Forest Service, claimed to complete a Participatory Forest Management Plan (PFMP), without adequate consultations with the local community. The plan indicated that the exotic plantations were to be clear-felled in five years. However, virtually all trees have been earmarked for felling at once. Then in July 2011 the Town Council started clear- felling the Forest which sparked community protests.
Continued desecration of the hill has far reaching implications to the community and their livelihoods which include:
- Interference with the weather pattern of the area and the surrounding areas thus compromising the community's farming systems
- Dilution of the potency of the sacredness of the forest and the strong cohesive bonds that culturally binds the community, through their story of origin embedded within the sacred forest as handed down by their ancestors
- Deprivation of the community of a clean and healthy environment which is an inherent basic human right, through land degradation and interference with the natural geological cycle
The community is calling for governance that represents and listens to their voice and that of their great forefather Mbaire to ensure that the holistic integrity of Karima territory is secured.
Despite the community presenting their petition to all relevant government departments their voice has not been heard. So the community have decided to file a litigation case to stop clear-felling of plantations and destruction of Karima forest. PORINI, a local lawyer, the ABN and allies are supporting the communities in solidarity.
The Karima community are setting a precedent for the legal recognition of the Karima Forest Hill as a sacred site, as well as reclaiming their traditional custodial rights and responsibilities to govern their sacred sites according to Earth-centred customary laws, as handed down to them by their ancestors. This local precedent has potential for regional and international impact, as partners in the African Biodiversity Network and other communities learn from and develop their own precedents which secure legal recognition of sacred sites and their traditional governance systems.
Find out more about Karima Forest and the work of our partner, The PORINI Association.