CHALLENGES FACING FORESTS OF THE TUGEN HILLS
Baringo district, Rift valley, Kenya is one of Kenya’s ASAL classified regions. It is almost entirely arid except for the Tugen hills North West and Central of the district.
The population in the lowland areas of Baringo are pastoralists and practice bee keeping whereas those of Tugen hills are subsistence farmers.
Being a highland that is agriculturally productive, the Tugen hills is a lifeline of the whole Baringo district as it is a source of foodstuff especially horticultural products and cereals.
The Tugen hills experience a fairly good rainfall pattern, with fertile soils and once boasted feeding the entire district. The reliance of the rest of the district on Tugen hills as its food basket has sharply declined that that supplements has to be sourced from elsewhere. The poor harvests experienced in the recent decades are due to changing rainfall patterns, combined effects of climate change and massive erosion.
Initially when the vegetation was still intact, the rainfall pattern was consistent and therefore the food security was reliable.
Currently, the forest coverage has drastically declined by approximately 20% and hence, one of the measures to check the problem is ensuring the stop of further destruction of the existing four main forests namely; Katemok, Tarambas hill, Kipng’ochoch and Kinyo forests and restoring their initial coverage through re- forestation.
All the four of Tugen hills forests are under management of the county council of Baringo and protected by Kenya Forestry Service
Approximately 80% of the Tugen hills forests are composed of indigenous plant species with the remaining being exotic plantations, some established in the early 1970’s on lands where illegal settlers had invaded in the 1950’s.
There are sections of savannah grassland vegetation in the Tugen hills, for example the region around Kapchomuso and Kapkut areas. The higher most points of the hills are rocky, with scorch vegetation. These regions include areas around Kabarnet town, seguton hill, Tarambas hill and Kator all in Baringo central.
The Tugen hills forests are of great importance to the communities living around it for it’s socio- economic and cultural benefits.
Long before and after the introduction of modern medicine, the local communities have relied on especially the indigenous plants for their medicinal value.
These forests are also a source of energy (firewood), as the cheapest and readily available form. It is a source of wood for construction of houses, making of furniture, household items and traditional artifacts.
The forests of Baringo have a great significance as water catchment areas and a reason for the existence of flowing streams. They include Kinyo, Endao, Kerio, Kapkiamo, Bemoi, Emkong, Sogom, Kimogombel, Ruwamoi, Toiwon, Smood falls, Kapkong and Enso Rivers.
These Rivers supply the districts’ all important water reservoirs including Lake Baringo, Lake Kapnarok, Kirandich dam which supply domestic water for Kabarnet municipality, Chemeron dam which supply Marigat town, Kimao dam which is to suppliment Chemeron in supplying Marigat, Toiwon dam which supply Kabartonjo town and Kaptimbor dam. Most of these streams are also tributaries to the main Rivers -Kerio and Endao Rivers
During times of drought and shortage of grass for livestock, some forest plants like Trichocladus ellipticus become alternative fodder.
For Bee farmers, these forests are ideal locations for placing beehives.
The Tugen hills though still is home to wild animals and protected plants, the wildlife population has notably reduced by the time.
There are culturally significant plants that the Tugen people use during traditional ceremonies. These plants may not be available in their farmlands thus the forestlands are quite important as a source for them. These plants include Warburgia ugandensis, Acocanthera schimperi, Euclea divinorum, among many others.
With the low economic empowerment of the surging population, the declining crop harvests and lack of other business avenues, people have resulted to trading in wood products to meet their day-to-day needs. There also been an increased reliance of forest resources lately, owed to their high value products. More harvesting of these plants have resulted to their depletion at an alarming rate.
Rampant harvesting of Juniperus and Olives for their high quality building material; Podocarpus and Warburgia for their high quality furniture production; Garcinia jonstonii as an important medicinal plant and the increasing illegal trading of Osyris lanceolata (East African Sandalwood), have made these and others endangered.
Deforestation and logging remain the main cause of these forests destruction. Communities living around the forests cut trees for firewood, charcoal burning, building material and carvings production. There are traders who supply saw millers with logs from these forests, especially Katemok and Kipng’ochoch, for timber production.
Improper harvesting of wood for the production of carvings, household items and for medicine has left these important plants vulnerable to possible elimination. Lately, the trading in endangered plant species like the Sandalwood has increased in the region, with wealthy businessmen and influential leaders forming the cartels.
Illegal as well as licensed logging constitutes a bigger proportion of the forests destruction than the domestic usage does.
Overcoming the problem is quite cumbersome since the wealthy traders in this business, who also harvest in large scale, offer handsome bribes to the low earning forest security. Therefore, corruption among the forest authorities and people trading in forest products is one of the factors contributing to the destruction of the Tugen hills forests.
The award of forestland for human settlement and ‘community projects’ including construction of schools, churches and health centers by influential leaders in government, as has been the case in Baringo in the past, has contributed to massive destruction of forests.
Similar settlements in other forests like the Mau, Mochongoi and Timboroa forests have caused destruction whose effects of decreasing volume of main Rivers of Baringo have been felt.
Erosion, a consequence of deforestation has caused siltation of Baringo’ s water reservoirs, soil infertility and massive floods that have caused destruction of infrastructure and loss of life.
Down the slopes of Tugen hills to the West is the Kerio valley and Mokoswok valley to the East. These are arid lands, where a sign of desertification is evidently encroaching towards the uplands. This is fueled by massive charcoal burning, land clearance due to population pressure, overgrazing and the effects of climate change. Entirely all the charcoal consumed in Baringo’ s urban centers and elsewhere is produced in the arid parts of the district and while the main economic activity is livestock rearing, overgrazing and hence erosion is rampant.
The change of climate has been noted from the inconsistent rainfall patterns and forms, rising temperatures and re- emergence of diseases for example the Rift Valley Fever that was attributed to the unusually long rains in the year 2006.
The numerous challenges facing the existence of forests in the Tugen hills can be overcome if measures are put in place the soonest to curb it’s destruction and initiate the process of restoration.
The most important measure to change the existing trend could be starting a re- forestation and tree-planting program.
This involves first creating awareness of the danger and consequence of depleting forests and instilling a sense of responsibility in the people so as to be in the forefront in the conservation of these forests.
The involvement of relevant authorities including the Kenya Forestry Service, Local authorities, Ministry of Natural Resources, Kenya wildlife Service, local administrative and political leaders as well as community development groups is important in mobilizing financial and human resource support.
This will eventually pave way for the forestation program, which entails identification and reclamation of depleted zones in the forests with the aim of replanting them. The community will also be encouraged to plant trees in their homes, and if possible dedicate to establish private forests.
Encouraging the local community of the need to venture into alternative energy sources such as solar, wind power and most of all biogas can drastically reduce the overdependence of firewood, which is a forest resource.
The use of energy saving stoves in homes and cultivation of fast growing softwood plants like Croton and Griffelia for firewood dependency should also be encouraged.
Medicinal plants and plants with cultural and economic importance should be protected to ensure their continual usage among the community. Healthy harvesting of these plants should be encouraged to avoid unnecessary destruction and possible wastage. The medicinal importance of Garcinia jonstonii (Muikutwe - Tugen), has left the plant vulnerable to extinction. Every single plant of the few remaining (as observed in Tarambas and Kinyo forests), have been debarked and could dry up soon. The problem facing its natural propagation is the fact that its seeds are edible and due to the few plants available, the fruits are harvested premature hence the chance of it’s seeds maturing fully is quite minimal. Several other plant species that have to be used by the community are facing the same risk of being exhausted.
Generally, the decline in vegetation cover in the Tugen hills can represent a feature that is characteristic the world over. To arrest the situation, there is need to concentrate and dedicate resources on the smaller units of the entire global forest cover like this to ensure maximum protection. By doing so, the prospects of combined efforts will see the worlds future generation live in a better world.
By Chesire Chris