A forest of their own: The Yiaku as Kenya’s model forest stewards
By Shadrack Kavilu - 26. November 2018
- The Yiaku people have inhabited and watched over Mukogodo Forest for centuries, as hunter-gatherers who have lately embraced herding. But it is only in the past decade that the Kenyan government has officially given them rights to the forest, as well as full responsibility for managing it.
- The forest has thrived under the Yiaku’s care, according to officials, a stark contrast to other forests in the country, which are being lost to illegal logging and agricultural encroachment.
- The Kenyan government, which has a decidedly mixed record when it comes to protecting both forests and the rights of forest-dwelling indigenous groups, is hailing the Yiaku’s approach as a model for other communities around the country. However, the Yiaku face a suite of challenges, including intensifying drought, threats of encroachment by neighboring groups, and their own dwindling connection to their traditional culture.
- This is the first part of Mongabay’s three-part profile of the Yiaku’s management of their ancestral forest.
LAIKIPIA, Kenya — An elderly man clad in a long green-and-yellow plaid shawl knotted tightly above one shoulder sits on the dusty verandah of Mukogodo Primary School, oblivious to the scorching midday heat.
“We have three footpaths that can take us to the forest from here, but we have to know what time it is in order to know which area the elephants and buffalos are headed to,” Moses Litiku tells Mongabay. He gazes at the sun. After a few minutes of consideration he settles on a route safely out of the animals’ way and then forges out, clenching his walking stick.
Litiku, a 79-year-old herbalist, grew up in Mukogodo Forest and knows it intimately. His people, the Yiaku, have inhabited and watched over the forest for centuries, as hunter-gatherers who have lately embraced herding. But it was only in the past decade that the Kenyan government officially granted them rights to the forest, as well as full responsibility for managing it. Mukogodo is the only one of Kenya’s 372 gazetted forests under the sole custodianship of an indigenous community.
The community’s approach to protecting the forest involves a strong governance system coupled with traditional religious beliefs that emphasize care for the ecosystem on which their livelihoods depend. The Yiaku have fended off illegal loggers and poachers, and forest cover has improved under their care, in stark contrast to other forests in the country, which are being lost to illegal logging and agricultural encroachment. The government, which has a decidedly mixed record when it comes to protecting both forests and the rights of forest-dwelling indigenous groups, is hailing the Yiaku’s approach as a model for other communities around the country. However, the Yiaku face a suite of challenges to their custodianship of the forest, including intensifying drought, threats of encroachment by neighboring groups, and their own dwindling connection to their traditional culture.
Defending the forest
Mukogodo Forest is a 302-square-kilometer (117-square-mile) tract of dry forest that sits in the foothills of Mount Kenya in the central part of the country, 210 kilometers (130 miles) northeast of Nairobi. Its rolling hills blanketed in native trees are home to 45 mammal species, including threatened elephants, buffaloes and leopards, as well as around 200 bird and 100 butterfly species.
Deep inside the forest, Litiku comes to a dark spot where the canopy blots out the sky. He sees freshly broken branches on a tree, then bends down to examine what looks like animal droppings. He squeezes a piece of it between his fingers, testing the moisture, then drops it.
“The elephants passed through here about three hours ago. They are now on the other side of the forest and will be returning later in the evening,” he says with a reassuring grin.
Litiku goes on to explain the Yiaku’s relationship with the forest.
“Our forefathers invoked a curse on the forest and we believe whoever cuts a tree, the curse would befall his family,” he says. “These taboos are very powerful and no one would contemplate breaking them, not even during the night.”
Litiku says Yiaku children as young as 4 are taught about the importance of the trees and behavior patterns of birds. By the time they reach 12 they can interpret various bird calls and animal behaviors to tell the presence of a predator or poacher. “For example when birds like woodpeckers chirp continuously near a homestead we know it’s a signal that we have an enemy. Furthermore, our honey harvesters communicate with honeyguide birds through whistling to establish locations of wild beehives deep inside the forest,” Litiku says.
The forest provides more than just food and the opportunity to generate income through activities like beekeeping and livestock grazing. “The forest provides us with medicinal plants; thus destroying any of these trees is putting our community in grave danger,” Litiku says, pointing at a tree he claims cures at least four ailments.
The community’s strong attachment to the sacred forest is at the heart of the Yiaku’s traditional values and practices, which they have developed into a unique governance structure to manage and regulate forest resources. As a member of the Yiaku’s 15-person council of elders, Litiku helps decide how the community uses the forest sustainably, for instance by allocating the rotation of grazing areas, formulating laws, and helping resolve disputes. The council has been a feature of Yiaku life for generations, part of the group’s traditional forest management approach that has become increasingly formalized through partnership with the Kenyan government.
Over the years, the country has enacted a raft of progressive laws aimed at bolstering existing forest conservation initiatives by bringing on board indigenous people and local communities. The Forest Act of 2005 granted these communities the rights to forest resources. A 2007 revision of the act gave communities a bigger role in forest conservation, either as co-managers or contract managers of forests. It also outlawed, on paper anyway, long-standing practices such as hunting and logging for charcoal, to maintain the forests and promote tourism.
That year, the Yiaku abandoned hunting in favor of livestock herding and beekeeping, and ventured into ecotourism, leasing out a lodge they’d built a few years earlier to an investor who established a high-end six-room tourist lodge there. Proceeds from the lease help support Mukogodo Primary School and pay Yiaku children’s school fees, forest scouts’ salaries, medical costs and community projects.
In 2008, the Yiaku formed a decision-making body known as a Community Forest Association (CFA) and entered into an official partnership with the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) to manage Mukogodo. While retaining ownership of the forest land through KFS, the government acknowledges that it is Yiaku ancestral land and guarantees the community the right to unfettered access to and use of the forest.
Under the partnership, the Yiaku CFA began work to develop a strategic management plan for forest conservation, establish tree nurseries, and act as the environment’s watchdog. It set up a team of six Yiaku forest guards, trained by the KFS, to monitor forest health and patrol for illegal activity. It also set up a team of Yiaku youth scouts, trained by the KFS, to take part in patrols and other forest conservation activities. And it established a targeted reforestation program that all community members, including children, are required to help with. Over the years the community has received funding from several NGOs for various aspects of their work to protect their rights, culture and forest.
It’s not just living trees the Yiaku value; they also have a strong passion for dead ones.
“Cutting dead tree logs that are still standing or fallen is also considered a taboo here,” James Sikong, a 27-year-old Yiaku forest guard and a member of the CFA, tells Mongabay. For one thing, the logs sometime act as beehives.
“Even if they fail to attract bees, we would rather let them decompose and add nutrients to the ground,” he says, pointing to a log that fell 20 years ago. “I remember the event very well because I was in nursery school when the tree fell on my path to school. Since then, the tree is still here,” Sikong says, adding that no Yiaku dare cut any of the many fallen logs in the forest, not even for firewood.
Sikong and the five other forest guards work closely with the youth scouts, patrolling the forest by foot on a daily basis. The guards are armed with mobile phones and heavy weaponry issued by the KFS, and the scouts carry traditional swords and batons. The latter are also engaged in herding and beekeeping, which ensures they are always in the forest.
There’s little help, other than the training, from the KFS; the primary duty of the only KFS officer assigned to Mukogodo is to coordinate logistics in case of natural disasters like wildfires. They are constantly in tune with everything happening in the forest, Lazarus Lentula, a 27-year-old forest guard leader, tells Mongabay.
“Since we are all members of this community we are in a better position to detect any encroachment or destruction of the forest,” Lentula says. When the guards or scouts spot a threat from illegal loggers or a sick wild animal, they inform the CFA immediately, as well as the relevant authorities, such as the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) or the KFS, he says. Depending on the nature of the threat, the guards and scouts can also remove offenders from the forest or arrest them and take them to the council of elders for punishment.
The Yiaku’s approach has paid off. In the decade since they took on full management responsibility for Mukogodo, the forest’s tree cover has increased from 52 percent to 70 percenst, according to Stephen Mwaura, a KFS ecosystem conservator for Laikipia county. “The achievement of the Yiaku in recovering forest canopy is very impressive compared to other forests in the country, which have witnessed a high rate of deforestation between 2010 [and] 2018,” Mwaura tells Mongabay.
Although there have been no studies to confirm it, locals say wildlife has rebounded too. “Since we took over the control of the forest, the population of animals, like gazelles and antelopes, that we used to hunt for food has increased; they now roam freely to our homesteads,” Litiku says.
The community has scaled up its beekeeping in the years since it gained control of the forest, which has led to higher incomes. Access to education and medical care has also improved significantly, thanks to funding from the tourist lodge. The Yiaku are now looking to expand their honey production capacity and build another lodge.
Rights to the forest are key
Jennifer Koinante has been at the forefront of the community’s fight for recognition of its land rights as executive director of the Yiaku Laikipiak Trust, a local advocacy group. Besides keeping the forest intact, the Yiaku’s management approach has also earned them autonomy and security from the government, Koinante says, easing a threat of eviction from the forest that had loomed in 2011 following heightened political tensions in the area. The corollary is that the government’s recognition of the Yiaku’s land and forest rights renewed the community’s zeal to conserve Mukogodo. “A sense of belonging and identity … came along with recognition of our land rights and acknowledgment that the forest is our ancestral land,” Koinante says.
That sense of identity has been critical for the tiny Yiaku community of fewer than 4,000 people. “Our struggle has been long and winding, dovetailing our identity as a people and our economic rights,” she says.
Koinante’s view that recognizing indigenous peoples’ rights is the only way the government can effectively combat deforestation and poaching in the forests these people inhabit is shared by a growing body of conservationists and human rights experts. A report released in June by the U.S.-based NGO Rights and Resources Initiative and the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, found that indigenous and local communities are far more effective conservationists than governments are through protected areas; and yet those very communities are often displaced or marginalized to achieve conservation goals. “They are achieving at least equal conservation results with a fraction of the budget of protected areas, making investments in indigenous people the most efficient means of protecting forests,” the report states.
A model for other forests
In fact, the Yiaku’s guardianship of Mukogodo Forest has been hailed as the first success story in the decade since indigenous and local communities began collaborating with the Kenyan government on forest conservation. In 2015, conservationists marked World Forest Day with a celebration in Mukogodo. The model, conservationists and at least some Kenyan authorities believe, has the potential to improve Kenya’s forest cover and the livelihoods of thousands of indigenous people living in the country’s forests.
“This community model of using ancient conservation techniques has proved forest co-management with indigenous communities could be the panacea in reducing deforestation and land conflicts,” says the KFS’s Mwaura.
He says that following the Yiaku’s success, the government plans to replicate the co-management model in more than 100 other gazetted forests. The agency has already signed forest co-management agreements with 87 communities, although the Yiaku remain the only one to have full custodianship of their forest, and is in negotiations with another 68.
But the process won’t be easy, he says. Progress has been slow, considering the government began enacting laws promoting community forest management more than a decade ago: at the current rate, it would take 35 years to finalize co-management agreements for the country’s remaining 285 gazetted forests.
“Not all forest communities are well organized,” Mwaura says. “Some are known to abet logging, making it difficult to bring them on board.”
Moreover, increasingly frequent droughts, rapid population growth, high competition for food and pasture, and increasing demand for energy are driving communities into Kenya’s forests, escalating deforestation. “Population pressure and [a] scramble for grazing pasture from outsiders is proving a challenge towards introducing this model to other gazetted forests in the country,” Mwaura says.
Kenya’s deforestation problem is serious. Forests account for about 7.4 percent of Kenya’s total land area, down from 12 percent 50 years ago. In 2016 the government announced a goal to increase the country’s forest cover to 10 percent by 2022.
Jackson Bambo is the national coordinator for the Kenya Forests Working Group, a Nairobi-based coalition of governmental, nongovernmental and community groups that promotes sustainable forest management. Like Mwaura, he attributes the slow progress in bringing indigenous and local communities into forest management partly to communities taking a long time to form the required CFAs. But he lays much of the blame on the government, for failing to make clear how the communities would be compensated for their efforts, and also for dragging its heels.
“The process has been slow because the Forest Act 2005 did not have timelines and so KFS took long to set up and also to develop the necessary guidelines, forest management plans and forest management agreements,” Bambo says.
He says the Forest Conservation and Management Act, from 2016, addresses the issue of incentives, as well as gender representation, and ensures communities will have access to finances through a designated trust fund. He says he’s hopeful this will move the process forward. “The new law ensures communities’ interests are taken into account. We expect to see more communities willing to collaborate with authorities in the war against deforestation,” Bambo says.
For many indigenous communities, the Kenyan government has a long way to go. Even as it has recognized the Yiaku’s land and forest rights and encouraged them to take control of their ancestral forest, it has been evicting other indigenous forest dwellers, often violently.
For instance, the Sengwer and the Ogiek, both hunter-gatherer groups in the west of the country, have for years fought for their land rights and demanded to be involved in the management of their ancestral forests. Yet they remain in conflict with the authorities, who blame them for forest destruction. Earlier this year the European Union suspended a $35 million conservation project after the Kenyan government violently evicted Sengwer communities from a forest they claim.
Moreover, Kenya’s forest authorities have a severe credibility problem. Amid a public outcry this year over rapid deforestation, the government imposed a nationwide ban on logging that has been extended until next November, and fired the head of the KFS. In April, a government task force appointed to study the issue released a scathing report that held the KFS itself largely responsible for the loss of forest cover, saying officers turning a blind eye or in some cases even participated in illegal logging. “The Kenya forest service has institutionalized corruption and the system is replete with deep-rooted corruptive practices, lack of accountability and unethical behavior,” the report states.
New threats, new approaches
Against the backdrop of this turbulent national scene, the Yiaku face challenges of their own.
One is mounting pressure on Mukogodo Forest from neighboring communities, intensified by climate change. The region has been gripped by a series of droughts in recent years that are lasting longer and becoming more intense. A racially charged conflict flared up last year between pastoralist communities and private ranchers near Mukogodo over dwindling pasture and water points. The drought forced Samburu herders to move into Mukogodo from the north in search of pasture, leaving a trail of destruction in the forest.
Over the years, the Yiaku have had a management plan that allocated these pastoralists some grazing land in designated parts of the forest during the dry seasons. The arrangement has helped mitigate conflict for ages, ensuring the pastoralists’ herds don’t destroy the forest, according to Koinante. But Yiaku leaders fear the herders’ recent defiance of the agreement could fuel conflict and open the way for illegal loggers, jeopardizing the forest’s health and the community’s hard-earned rights to the forest.
“We want the government to intervene during such incidences so that they can help us safeguard the forest resources,” Koinante says.
One tool the Yiaku have come up with in response to these emerging challenges is a three-dimensional map of the forest. The Yiaku have used it to identify which areas to reforest and what tree species to plant. They’ve also used it to highlight the porous stretches of the forest’s boundaries, so they can determine where to mount beehives to keep intruders away. “You can’t cut trees where there are bees, for fear of being attacked,” Koinante says.
Another imminent challenge is the Yiaku’s precarious position as a people. While conservationists tout the community’s traditional forest conservation practices as a solution to Kenya’s deforestation problem, fears are emerging that those very traditions could be fast dying.
The small community has been assimilating to the culture of its pastoral Maasai neighbors, to the extent that they are often referred to as Mukogodo Maasai. Only two Yiaku people now speak their language, Yakunte, fluently, and UNESCO has classified it as extinct.
To ensure the Yiaku culture and ecological knowledge don’t die with the elders, the community has initiated several projects.
“We are identifying, collecting and documenting this knowledge to safeguard it for future generations,” Koinante says. “Already we have started Yiaku classes where the young are taught traditions and culture by the elders.”
The community also recently built a museum to document and preserve their traditional knowledge for future generations. But it was destroyed together with the 3D map last year by the invading Samburu herders. According to Koinante, the herders used the museum as an encampment and everything in it as fuel for cooking and warmth. The Yiaku are now in the process of recreating the map and looking for a safer location near settlements to rebuild the museum, she says.
For now, the Yiaku’s model appears to be working. Whether it can survive in the long run depends on how well the community navigates the conflicts induced by climate change and how fast it can come up with a way to keep its culture vital.
Shadrack Kavilu is a freelance environmental journalist based in Nairobi. He has published in local and international media outlets, including the Mail and Guardian and Thomson Reuters Foundation News.
Bees help indigenous Yiaku defend and monitor their ancestral forest
By Shadrack Kavilu - 28 November 2018
- The Yiaku, former hunter-gatherers who live in Mukogodo Forest in central Kenya, have kept bees since ancient times.
- They consider honey a valuable commodity and use it not only as food but in traditional rituals and medicine. Beekeeping is also part of the community’s customary system of forest management, helping the Yiaku defend the forest against intruders and monitor its health.
- The Yiaku’s use of beekeeping and other traditional practices to conserve their forest has earned them recognition and autonomy from the Kenyan government, which in 2008 granted the community full responsibility for managing the forest.
- This is the second part of Mongabay’s three-part profile of the Yiaku’s management of their ancestral forest.
LAIKIPIA, Kenya — John Pardero walks swiftly through a thicket of umber-red trees intertwined with shrubs. “They have finally moved in,” he says, pausing to point at a swarm of native bees humming in and out of a beehive lodged in a thicket of branches overhead.
Pardero owns more than 60 beehives already, but each new one that attracts bees makes his grin widen. “I mounted this beehive just a week ago and now you can see bees are streaming in and out,” he says.
Pardero, 32, is a member of the Yiaku indigenous group, former hunter-gatherers who have lived deep in Mukogodo Forest, a 302-square-kilometer (117-square-mile) swath of dry forest in central Kenya, for hundreds of years. They have kept bees since ancient times; they consider honey a valuable commodity and use it not only as food but in traditional rituals and medicine. Beekeeping is also part of the community’s customary system of forest management, helping the Yiaku defend the forest against intruders and monitor its health.
“Beekeeping is part of our traditional culture and practices since time immemorial,” Pardero tells Mongabay. “It’s mandatory for every man in the community to own beehives.”
To check up on his hives, which are mounted in different sections of Mukogodo, Pardero, like other community members, patrols the forest every day. He says he covers at least 4 square kilometers (1.5 square miles), an area a little bigger than New York’s Central Park, while inspecting his beehives.
That care and attention extends to the forest itself. “To maintain the hives I must ensure the trees and water points are properly managed to ensure bees get enough nectar,” Pardero says. “We have to regularly check the conditions of the beehives to ensure that the colony is not disturbed by pests and in the process we also monitor the state of the trees.”
The Yiaku’s use of beekeeping and other traditional practices to conserve their forest has earned them recognition and autonomy from the Kenyan government. Whereas the government has controversially evicted other indigenous communities from their ancestral forests, ostensibly to restore forest cover, it has allowed the Yiaku to remain in Mukogodo, and in 2008 granted the community full responsibility for managing the forest.
The move has paid off. Over the past decade, Mukogodo’s forest cover increased from 52 percent to 70 percent, according to Stephen Mwaura, a Kenya Forest Service (KFS) ecosystem conservator for the county of Laikipia, where the forest is located.
Mwaura says that if the Yiaku’s forest management system could be replicated elsewhere, it could help the government achieve its ambitious goal to increase the country’s forest cover, now at 7 percent, to 10 percent by 2022. He says the community’s beekeeping practice is in line with the government’s new strategy to increase forest cover by promoting the development of non-wood forest products, such as honey, beeswax, gum and resin.
The Yiaku are benefiting from the arrangement, as well. Matunge Manasseh, a Yiaku elder, says beekeeping has helped the community sustain its livelihood by protecting the forest it depends on entirely.
“We place beehives around most endangered tree species, such as sandalwood, and along porous border points to deter deforestation,” he says.
The idea is to deter illegal loggers. “No one can dare cut a tree near a beehive; the bees will definitely attack since they don’t like noise or being disturbed,” Manasseh says.
The network of beehives also prevents wild animals like elephants and buffalos from encroaching on Yiaku settlements, thus averting human-wildlife conflicts.
The Yiaku also rely on the bees as a sophisticated yet low-tech forest monitoring system. Manasseh says the absence of certain flavors in the honey indicates that the area of the forest where it was harvested has been degraded. “The taste of the honey can tell us where nectar was drawn from and from which ecological location in the forest,” he says. “By analyzing the honey carefully we are able to make an informed decision on which section of the forest needs reforestation.”
Honey is central to Yiaku culture. The Yiaku consume it as food, medicine and an ingredient in alcoholic beverages. They also use honey in rituals such as circumcisions, marriages and prayers in the sacred forest. During initiation ceremonies, for instance, they cleanse youths transitioning from one age group to the next with a mixture of honey and water that is thought to help them recover quickly from circumcision wounds.Beehives also serve as a symbol of wealth. “The community has maintained the practice of beekeeping by ensuring that when a boy child is born in a family he is gifted with 10 beehives,” says Lazarus Lentula, the 27-year-old leader of the Yiaku forest guards, a group of six men trained by the KFS to patrol and monitor Mukogodo for illegal activity.
Lentula says children are trained in how to make beehives, the best places to mount them, and how to conserve the trees to ensure bees get the forage they need to produce honey.
“By the time a boy is 15 years old, he is supposed to have mastered the art of beekeeping and honey harvesting,” Lentula says. “It’s a requirement that before you get married you should own more than 20 beehives to demonstrate that you have reached manhood and are ready to be a responsible elder.”
Lentula says the number of beehives a man owns indicates his readiness to start a family. Traditionally, the Yiaku used to pay marriage dowries with honey. But over the past 70 years the group has adopted the language and many cultural practices of their pastoral neighbors, the Maasai, including animal husbandry.
“Today, cattle and goats are also used in dowry, reducing the pressure on men to have many beehives,” Lentula says.
The community previously produced honey only for domestic use. However, growing demand for the commodity across Kenya has enabled the Yiaku to build a small commercial enterprise around beekeeping. In 2010, the community, in collaboration with the Anglican Church of Kenya, built a processing plant near the town of Dol Dol, about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the forest. A local advocacy group, the Yiaku Laikipia Trust,sells branded “Mukogodo Honey” from the plant across the country.
Yiaku beekeepers can now earn up to $2,400 annually, double the average annual income of a rural Kenyan household.
“We are scaling up income from honey through value addition strategies such as grading and packaging,” says Jennifer Koinante, executive director of the Yiaku Laikipia Trust. “We pack it into different quantities to make it more affordable. We also extract bee wax and sell it as an independent bee product.”
Koinante says the processing plant and marketing initiative have eliminated the community’s reliance on exploitative middlemen. “By developing the honey value chain we will improve the income of community members [and] thus motivate them to support local conservation efforts,” she says.
While the Yiaku are making a decent living from beekeeping, other bee farmers across the country are decrying low honey yields due to declining populations of bees and other pollinators. A 2014 study in the journal PLOS One found that Kenya’s bee populations had declined noticeably over the preceding five to seven years. It did not point to a cause, although it did suggest that the pesticides, pathogens and parasites that have caused significant bee losses in America and Europe were not to blame.
Researchers have hailed beekeeping as a boon for both forests and sustainable incomes. “Both traditional and modern beekeeping is actually an effective way of conserving forests,” says Alex Oduor, a program officer at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi. “Where communities are practicing beekeeping they are more protective of the forest because they understand the benefits of trees.”
That assertion is supported by his organization’s research in some parts of Kenya, which Oduor says shows that beekeeping is motivating communities to conserve and manage their forests. As a result, the center, in partnership with the KFS, has been encouraging forest communities around the country to take up beekeeping.
“When communities who live near forest are trained on the importance of beekeeping they will not enter into the forest and destroy it; instead they will conserve it to ensure their beehives have honey,” Oduor says. “Forest dwellers know the importance of conserving forest because they depend on it for their livelihoods.”
Scientists at the Kenya Forest Research Institute (KEFRI), a state agency, also recognize that beekeeping can promote forest conservation.
“The beauty of beekeeping in the conservation of forest is that the entire ecosystem is conserved rather than a keystone species or particular tree,” says Mercy Gichora, a senior scientist at KEFRI. “If you conserve the bees you have to conserve the forest that is both flora and fauna.”
Gichora underscores the need to promote beekeeping, especially in communities that live around forest, noting that it should be integrated into forest policy to scale up forest cover.
While other communities are shying away from beekeeping owing to low returns, the Yiaku intend to invest heavily. They have plans to build a bigger processing plant to accommodate the huge amount of honey they are harvesting from Mukogodo Forest, Koinante says, and are looking for a donor to help fund the construction.
Shadrack Kavilu is a freelance environmental journalist based in Nairobi. He has published in local and international media outlets, including the Mail and Guardianand Thomson Reuters Foundation News.
Muli, E., Patch, H., Frazier, M., Frazier, J., Torto, B., Baumgarten, T., et al. (2014). Evaluation of the Distribution and Impacts of Parasites, Pathogens, and Pesticides on Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) Populations in East Africa. PLoS ONE 9(4): e94459. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0094459
For Kenya’s Yiaku, medicinal herbs are their forest’s blessing and curse
By Shadrack Kavilu - 30 November 2018
- The Yiaku, hunter-gatherers turned herders who live deep inside Mukogodo Forest in central Kenya, have relied on herbal remedies for ages, with knowledge passed orally from one generation to the next.
- However, high demand for the herbs from neighboring communities is exposing the forest to new threats — a trend mirrored across the country.
- Recognizing that traditional knowledge is crucial to forest conservation, the government has taken steps to protect it, at least on paper. However, the Yiaku have received little support, even as their most knowledgeable elders pass on and their community becomes increasingly assimilated to their pastoral neighbors.
- This is the third story in Mongabay’s three-part profile of the Yiaku’s management of their ancestral forest.
Read the other stories in this three-part profile of the Yiaku’s management of their ancestral forest:
A forest of their own: The Yiaku as Kenya’s model forest stewards
Kenya: Bees help indigenous Yiaku defend and monitor their ancestral forest
LAIKIPIA, Kenya — Naisimari Lentula, 80 years old, strolls carefully along a narrow footpath through the forest. Suddenly, she stops, her eyes fixed on several aromatic shrubs with bluish flowers that are tumbled over near the path. “This is the work of encroachers,” she says bitterly, then neatly sets the shrubs back to rights with the help of her walking stick.
For Lentula, inspecting the condition of the plants around her homestead is a routine she has perfected and performed every other morning for decades. “I have been using these shrubs for medication and used their fruits and tubers as food all my life,” she says.
A mother of four and grandmother of a dozen, Lentula is a Yiaku. The indigenous group lives deep inside Mukogodo Forest in central Kenya. Traditionally hunter-gatherers, the Yiaku have embraced pastoralism in recent decades. Although the Mukogodo area is well served by several government and privately owned hospitals and clinics, the Yiaku tend to frown on conventional health care, instead sticking to herbal medicines they gather from the forest. Like many elderly Yiaku, Lentula is a walking encyclopedia of traditional medicinal plants.
“You have to know the value of each and every tree here in order to survive and sustain your family’s livelihoods,” she tells Mongabay while stripping a piece of lichen-encrusted bark from a tree to administer to her sick neighbor. Her concoction includes the boiled bark of several tree species, mixed with fresh goat blood and honey — an instant cure for diarrhea, she says.
Despite her frail appearance and failing eyesight, Lentula doesn’t plan to retire from her calling as an herbalist any time soon. Nor does she take lightly intrusions that interfere with Mukogodo’s forest ecosystem. Like other Yiaku, Lentula has made it her sacred duty to monitor the 302-square-kilometer (117-square-mile) forest and ensure it remains intact.
In fact, the Yiaku are the only indigenous group to whom the Kenyan government has given full responsibility for managing its ancestral forest. They have been so successful at doing so through forest patrols, strategic placement of defensive beehives, and traditions such as the designation of sacred shrines and taboos against cutting trees, that the government plans to spread the model to other communities around the country. Medicinal plants are an important motivation for the Yiaku to conserve Mukogodo.
“We can only access medicinal plants if we protect this forest,” Lentula says.
However, high demand for the herbs, from neighboring communities, is exposing the forest to new threats. In addition to regular small-scale disturbances like the one Lentula observed, community members say outsiders in search of medicinal plants felled several cedar and olive trees in the last year. What pains Yiaku elders most is that some of these were highly treasured trees in a sacred shrine that serves as a water source for the community. They say the intrusions occur mainly during dry seasons when other communities’ habitats have been devastated by drought. The forest suffered the longest spell of intrusions in recent memory this past year.
“The encroachment by outsiders in search of herbs could put us on a collision course with the authorities and affect our livelihoods,” says Matunge Manasseh, a Yiaku elder. “We harvest these herbs with a lot of caution so as not to affect the life of a tree, but these encroachers lack the technique and know-how of which specific part of a tree has these medicinal values and instead they cut the entire tree while only the bark has medicinal value.”
Manasseh tells Mongabay that the Yiaku community has been generous with information about medicinal plants, but that in return the recipients have ended up using it to damage the forest. “We are now becoming cautious about who we share this knowledge with and for what purposes,” he says, adding that the community must focus on protecting rare tree species that are most sought after by outside herbalists.
To combat incursions from herbalists, the Yiaku have become more vigilant. They don’t allow strangers inside the forest without the elders’ consent. Early this year, the community’s forest guards arrested three intruding herbalists, turning them over to the council of elders for disciplinary action, which typically results in the imposition of curses.
It is unclear how many other arrests the guards made recently. Forest encroachment is a politically sensitive issue nationally, and especially in Laikipia county, where Mukogodo is located, and it’s common for conflicting accounts to emerge. The Yiaku forest guards claim to have arrested several individuals cutting down trees or taking medicinal plants in Mukogodo and to have handed them over to local authorities. However, the guards couldn’t say how many arrests they had made or when, and the provincial administration chief and Kenya Forest Service (KFS) conservator both denied having received the alleged culprits.
A national problem
The Yiaku aren’t alone in facing down forest degradation for medicinal plants, and the trend has drawn the government’s attention. In Kenya, as in many African countries, the use of herbal medicine is on the rise, in part because conventional health care is unattainably expensive for many, or simply unavailable, especially in rural areas, according to a 2008 government brief. With just 15 doctors per 100,000 people, “The conventional system provides for only 30 percent of the population, implying that more than two-thirds of Kenyans depend on traditional medicine for their primary health care needs,” the brief states.
That reliance is taking a toll on the country’s forests.
“We are losing important medicinal tree species to commercial herbalists who are overharvesting trees that are premature,” says Peter Kitelo, a member of the Kenya Forest Indigenous Peoples Network, a Nairobi-based advocacy group. Kitelo says unscrupulous herbalists are exacerbating forest destruction and the loss of medicinal plant biodiversity in the Mau Forest Complex, home of the Ogiek indigenous group to which he belongs, as well as in other forests across the country.
The view is shared by conservationists, who note that rising human populations are raising the pressure on forests.
“Communities are increasingly encroaching on forests due to climate change and to expand their agricultural land, thus putting pressure on forests and medicinal plants,” says Joseph Mungai, a technical consultant with USAID who is advising the Kenyan government on forest conservation and climate change resilience.
By the same token, because traditional medicinal knowledge among the Yiaku and other indigenous peoples plays a vital role in their conservation of forests, researchers are concerned about the rate at which this knowledge is being lost. Over the past century the Yiaku have adopted the culture and language of their pastoral Maasai neighbors, and most of their old people have died without passing their immense wealth of traditional knowledge on to the next generation. Currently there only two remaining elders who can fluently speak the Yiaku language.
Edmund Barrow, an independent community conservation and governance consultant based in Nairobi, says the traditional knowledge of indigenous communities is crucial to sustainable land and natural resource management. Indigenous people know more plant species and their medicinal properties than most researchers do, he says, adding that this knowledge should be incorporated into forest policy, both to safeguard it and help conserve the forest.
He also says it should be added to school curricula to keep it alive. “We need to bridge this gap in order to ensure the knowledge doesn’t die with the elders,” he says.
“Traditional knowledge about biodiversity is inadequately protected” and used, says Barrow. “We have very good laws [and policies] on paper but implementing them remains a challenge.”
Since 2009 Kenya has enacted progressive laws and taken other steps to protect and conserve indigenous and local communities’ intellectual property rights over their traditional knowledge, skills and practices, including traditional medicines. However, implementing them has remained a pipe dream, despite the formation of institutions dedicated to the effort.
For instance, in 2009 the Kenya Industrial Property Institute (KIPI), the government agency in charge of patents and trademarks, introduced the Traditional Knowledge and Genetic Resources Unit. One of the unit’s main initiatives was to establish a comprehensive national database of traditional knowledge, in partnership with various Kenyan research institutions, according to Stanley Atsali, a patent examiner with the KIPI.
But nearly a decade later, nothing has been done. This despite the country’s adoption, in 2016, of the Protection of Traditional Knowledge and Cultural Expression Act, which specifically mandated the establishment of the database and gave the national government powers to consult with county governments to make it happen.
“We are yet to kick off the process,” Atsali tells Mongabay. “We are working with county governments and research institutions to fast-track this process.”
None of the high-level initiatives have trickled down to the Yiaku. They say they have yet to receive any support from either the national or county governments in documenting and protecting their traditional knowledge, despite the government’s acknowledgement that it has been so critical to conserving Mukogodo Forest.
Shadrack Kavilu is a freelance environmental journalist based in Nairobi. He has published in local and international media outlets, including the Mail and Guardian and Thomson Reuters Foundation News.