Community-Led Rehabilitation of Maragoli Hills - a 1000-acre Degraded Mountain Ecosystem in Western Kenya
Published: 14 March 2023
Maragoli Hills – a 1000-acre degraded mountain ecosystem in western Kenya. Once a thriving water catchment, the Hills were reduced to bare rocks, due to deforestation that left the soil bare and subject to erosion.
Rehabilitation of Maragoli Hills has seen several failed attempts by government agencies and NGOs, largely because the local community was left out of the loop. With the community on board, the project has gained momentum, spelling hope for the residents.
Communities in Vihiga County of Western Kenya have suffered from effects of climate change across the sectors. Perhaps the worst hit has been the agriculture sector around Maragoli Hills, a once thriving ecosystem that was the source of several streams flowing down to Lake Victoria. Due to massive deforestation of the Hills, combined with climate change, rainfall patterns have shifted greatly, with seasons becoming unpredictable, and crop failure has become common phenomena.
The Maragoli Hills form a dominant environmental feature in Vihiga County, Kenya. Until the early 1990s, the Maragoli Hills were a healthy natural forest and water tower, rich in biodiversity and a source of many springs and streams flowing down into rivers and finally into Lake Victoria. In the years leading to 2000, a lot of destruction occurred in the forest, largely due to compromised administrators and pressure from local communities for firewood, timber and land for agriculture. Today, the badly degraded Maragoli Hills Ecosystem covers an expanse of 1000-acres of near-bare rocks.
Part of the features in the Hills are the Mungoma caves, which were a popular attraction to both local and international tourists, with the hill-tops in the ecosystem offering panoramic scenic viewpoints for bird watching and hiking, the Nandi Hills, Miwani Plains, Ndere and Maboko Islands on Lake Victoria. On the other end of the Hills stand Bunyore Shrine, considered the home of the ancestors of the Bunyore sub-tribe who are predominant in Luanda Sub-County.
In the last 2 decades, there have been numerous interventions by different stakeholders to restore the ecosystem of hills, but most of them yielded limited results. Such stakeholders included both civil society organizations and government agencies such as the Kenya Forest Service. A number of reasons constrained these efforts – including:
- Inadequate Consultation and Involvement of the Local Community – there wasn’t adequate involvement of the local community, to the extent that they only got involved at the implementation stage. This led to hostility against the interventions, and little could be achieved in the long-term.
- Tree Planting instead of Tree Growing - after-care activities for trees were not considered in the planning. Practices such as weeding, protection against any forms of damage and watering were not taken into consideration – leading to low survival of trees.
- Land Ownership Disputes – individuals in the local community claimed ownership of some sections of the hills, and demanded compensation if they were to release their land for rehabilitation. The government on the other hand held that some title deeds had been acquired irregularly, hence most of the claims by those who resided within the gazetted Maragoli hills ecosystem could not hold, and evictions were inevitable. This fuelled hostility and resistance between the community and government.
- Disputes on Species of Trees to Grow - the government and other stakeholders proposed planting indigenous tree species to rehabilitate the hills, but families within and around the hills insisted only fruit trees (such as mangoes, papaws and avocadoes could be grown.
Climate change has further aggravated the situation, with many streams flowing from the hills drying up during prolonged droughts, and flash-floods being experienced in the down-stream parts, such as the out-skirts of Kisumu city.
THE COMMUNITY-LED INTERVENTIONS:
It’s against this backdrop of failed restoration efforts that the Maragoli Hills Water Resource Users’ Association (MAHIWRUA) has mobilized other stakeholders within the ecosystem to collaboratively champion interventions that will see the Hills brought back to their ecological integrity and functions. To this end, local faith-based organizations and other CBOs have held consultative meetings, and invited forestry experts to train them on good practices in tree growing. The forestry department at the County government is actively supporting this initiative with technical advice, as well as donations of tree seedlings for planting by the local community, including fruit trees on their farms.
This has led to some positive results, with 85% survival of 40,000 trees planted in May 2021. In order to provide security, the County government has also put up an office facility within the ecosystem to coordinate restoration activities, with a working desk for MAHIWRUA. The association is also promoting on-farm forestry as part of the strategy to promote tree growing by the community and thus easing pressure on the natural gazetted forests.
One of the key partners in the initiative is the Catholic Diocese of Kakamega – under the Catholic Justice and Peace Department (CJPD)- which is helping coordinate other faith actors in engaging actively.
Members of the local community are being encouraged to establish and manage tree nurseries, from which seedlings for rehabilitation will be bought, thereby serving as a source of income to them. Groups from the local community are also being trained in various aspects such planting, care and protection of trees.
In order to support livelihoods and further motivate the community to remain engaged in the initiative, local community groups have been allowed access to practice bee-keeping in the upcoming forest, with some groups already having received some donations of bee-hives.
LESSONS FROM THE PROJECT:
Involvement of local communities in restoration initiatives is an essential component for success – and should not be at the tail end, but right from inception and throughout the project cycle. The case of Maragoli Hills is a classic example where the community had remained a spectator, seeing NGOs and state agencies planting trees on land they considered theirs. In several successive plantings, the very community members uprooted or grazed down the trees, and no amount of protection could save the trees.
Further collaborative effort in the last few years has seen notable success in restoring the hills. Public-private-partnerships have meant synergies created, resources pooled together, and knowledge and skills shared among partners. The private sector, especially the local banks such as Kenya Commercial bank and Equity bank, have been instrumental in donation of tree seedlings while the CBOs provided labour for the entire tree growing cycle.
With the on-going efforts, there is hope that the hills will finally be rehabilitated, and the springs and streams revived, with accompanying benefits to people, nature and climate.
Tom Barasa Wafula,
National Technical Support Expert - Kenya NDF
Tom Barasa Wafula,
National Technical Support Expert - Kenya NDF