By Sharon Atieno

Despite forests playing a key role in absorption of greenhouse gas emissions and consequently reducing the negative impacts of climate change, Kenya has been losing its forest cover at an alarming rate.

According to the Global Forest Watch, from 2013 to 2020, 80% of tree cover loss in Kenya occurred within natural forests. The loss is equivalent to 45.8 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.

To reverse this trend, as part of its National Climate Change Action Plan (2018-2022), Kenya is determined to increase its forest cover from 6.9% to 10% by 2022.

Key among the approaches being used by the government to attain this target is the use of the plantation establishment and livelihood improvement scheme (PELIS).

This is an incentive system anchored in section 48 and 49 of the Forest Management and Conservation Act of 2016, which allows forests adjacent communities, through community forests associations (CFAs) to use forestlands for food crop production while supporting forest establishment phase.

The land which the community members are given is usually the forest land under plantation when the trees have been harvested or when re-establishing degraded areas of the forest.

The portions are sub-divided through a balloting method among the CFA members. Once a CFA member has been given a portion, they are required to pay an annual commitment fee depending on the portion of land owned to the Kenya Forest Service (KFS). A quarter an acre costs shs. 250 (about USD 2.50) which is paid once every year until the trees grow.

The PELIS system is not entirely a new concept as it was formerly referred to as the shamba system before being rebranded.

A type of PELIS where kales have been grown alongside trees

Kiambu County is one such area where the approach is being implemented. The county has a forest cover of about 40,032 hectares which is sub-divided into several forest stations for administrative purposes. These include: Uplands, Ragia, Kaimai, Kieni, Kinale, Kereita and Thogoto.

According to Paul Karanja, the KFS Ecosystem Conservator for Kiambu County, planting of trees is an expensive affair which KFS cannot undertake on its own, that’s why there is need to involve community members.

“It is not just about planting trees, those trees need care. It is expensive to maintain them,” Karanja notes.

According to Isaac Waweru, Uplands Forest Station Manager, establishing one hectare of a plantation costs about shs. 200,000 (about USD 2000) without PELIS. This goes to raising seedlings and doing land preparation, staking, planting and maintaining to a level where the tree can maintain itself.

Through PELIS, this is reduced to shs. 50,000 (about USD 500) as KFS brings the seeds and the community members assist in planting and other things until the plantation is established.

A KFS team during a field visit in Uplands Forest Station Paul Karanja (middle), Isaac Waweru (right)

According to Waweru, the community members do a lot of work. KFS raises the seedlings in the nurseries while the communities assist in planting and taking care of the trees until they reach a height where they cannot exist with other crops roughly after three or four years, he said.

He adds that the community members are only allowed to grow low cover crops such as kales, cabbages, carrots and potatoes among others. Initially they allowed people to grow maize but they later on banned it.

This is due to the fast growth nature of maize which suppressed the growth of the tree seedlings in some areas especially in the first year.  Also, he adds, being that some farmers grow maize for fodder, the spacing for fodder is too close like grass thus when it comes to harvesting it, it would interfere with the trees as the person might accidentally cut the tree especially the farmhands.

Additionally, the farmer’s activities on the forest land are governed by an agreement signed between them and KFS and there are things they are allowed to do and not to do. This includes use of some chemicals such as certain herbicides which when sprayed may kill the tree when it is still young.

Consequences of breaking the agreement include being chased out of the forestland and the portion allotted to somebody else and the member will also not be eligible for another allocation depending on the magnitude of the breach.

Mary Nyaguthii, a farmer, member of Uplands CFA, and her husband own a small piece of land which is only enough to do small-scale subsistence farming. Being laid off from her job encouraged her to take part in PELIS.

In her small portion of the forestland which she pays for at shs. 800 (about USD 8) per year, Nyaguthii is able to grow kales, potatoes, carrots and cabbages alternatingly, though initially she used to also grow maize, she had to stop after the ban and now grows hay for her livestock.

“I get money from the sale of my produce which I am able to use to pay for the school fees of my children and to sustain my home,” she says, noting that from the forestland she can produce about 15 sacks of kales every two weeks, with a sack going for about shs. 1300 (about USD 13) to shs. 1500 (about USD 15) while for potatoes she can sell a sack at shs. 1500 (about USD15) to shs. 4000 (about USD 40).

Climate change has been a big issue for Nyaguthii because at times due to lack of frequent, and inadequate rains, the crops dry up while some like kales become stunted. This forces them to keep replanting the crops to replace the ones that have dried up which is very costly.

Mary Nyaguthii, a farmer in Kiambu County

Initially, Charles Nganga, Chairman Uplands CFA, owned a big piece of land but because it was infertile, he couldn’t produce food out of it. Hence when PELIS came, he ventured into farming potatoes, carrots and kales but since his children finished studying, he is now doing livestock keeping especially for dairy.

There was a time, I had four children in secondary school so even during Sundays after church, my wife and I would go to the farm so that we can produce enough to pay for their school fees and to sustain the family, he narrates.

He notes that through PELIS many of the members of the CFA have benefitted not only through food security in their homes but also as a source of income.

According to Karanja, PELIS has been a win-win situation not only for the communities but also for KFS. He adds that since he was posted to Kiambu County in 2018, at least 400hectares of forests have been reforested every year through this approach.

Concurring, Waweru reveals that in the last financial year alone, Uplands forest station has covered 120 hectares with trees because of the community and by June, 2022, they have a target of 80 hectares.

A 2016 research on the PELIS approach in Western Kenya also shows similar results of increased forest coverage. The research published in the American Journal of Agriculture and Forestry found that between 2001 and 2016, there was an increase of 114hectares (51%) of area under forest in Malava Forest, Kakamega County.

Karanja, however, notes that the main challenge with the approach is that without good supervision, some rogue farmers sabotage the growth of the trees to increase their farming period on the forest land.

“Once we deny them what they want to grow, they disengage from the activity,” he adds, noting that since they prohibited the Kiambu county farmers from growing maize, some of them have abandoned the farms leaving the tree seedlings at the mercy of invasive species and weeds.

Waweru says that there is a high demand for forest land than the KFS can meet, thus some farmers who are bordering catchment areas end up encroaching the adjacent lands.

He adds that there are also conflict issues among the different types of farmers especially when livestock farmers allow their livestock to trespass the plots where other farmers have planted crops.

Kenya is among the 141 countries which committed to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 at the twenty-sixth Conference of Parties (COP26) held in Glasgow, United Kingdom. Approaches such as PELIS could go a long way to help Kenya achieve this course and its own national target of achieving 10% forest cover by 2030.