Rivers Run Dry

On a trip home to Kenya last year, I decided to spend the new year visiting East Africa’s largest indigenous mountain forest, the Mau forest in Kenya’s Rift Valley. Accompanied by Samuel Karanja Muhunyu, the national coordinator for the Network for Ecofarming in Africa and Slow Food International Councilor, we visited parts of the 400,000-hectare forest complex suffering under widespread destruction.

We saw the once thick forest rapidly being replaced by grassland dotted with tree stumps, neat fields of wheat and maize, and large tea plantations. Thick smoke rises from dozens of charcoal burning kilns. Trucks loaded with hardwoods worth tens of thousands of dollars makes daily trips out of the forest and makeshift earth-covered kilns turn decades-old trees into $15 sacks of charcoal.

As a mountain forest, the Mau is one of Kenya’s five “water towers”: forests which form the upper catchments of Kenya’s major rivers and are sources of water for irrigation, agriculture, industrial processes, hydro-power plants and millions of people. The forest is also home to the ancient Ogiek community, who have traditionally survived as sustainable hunter-gatherers but since the 1950’s have lost much of their culture, traditions and territories due policy, legislation and the rapid spread of western religion and education. They now practice small-scale agriculture and livestock keeping and are reliant on the forest for their continued survival. The Mau is also vital for the pastoral Maasai people who graze their animals in the forest during dry spells.

Over the last decade hundreds of acres have been converted into cropland or to alternative land use such as settlement, private agriculture and charcoal production. The impact of the massive deforestation and logging of indigenous trees has adversely affected Kenya’s agricultural sector through its resulting climate change effects, and caused several rivers to dry up permanently. The decrease in water resources has had cascading effects: increased trekking distances, failed crops, earlier livestock migrations, weaker livestock more susceptible to disease, a surge in food and water prices, and food insecurity as families are left without milk and animal products. In addition, with increased competition for scarce water supplies, water-related conflict is on the rise.

The Slow Food Central Rift has been working on their part in collaboration with Network for Ecofarming in Africa, schools and community groups to address this worsening situation. As part of their collective initiative, the groups have established indigenous tree nurseries for the restoration of Mau forest. They aim to encourage communities to plant more trees to secure a promising future for generations to come. The groups are also lobbying the government and policy makers to involve the communities living in and around to the forest in policy formulation, management, restoration and policing activities. They see these people and communities as the best custodians of this ecosystem as they will be the ones to suffer the most from its destruction.

John Kariuki is a graduate of the University of Gastronomic Sciences and the Vice-President of Slow Food International.

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