Three hundred million. This is the number of people who live in forests globally according to the world forest habitat. A further 1.6 billion depend on the forests to meet their needs and solve their problems. These forest dwellers are the best-placed people to protect and conserve forests. Their habitation, contrary to what is claimed, does not increase deforestation but promotes reforestation in allowing them to care for the tree using their traditional knowledge and practices.
Across Africa, forest-dwelling communities, such as the Pygmy of the Congo, have successfully implemented good practices that allow them to conserve the forests and save biodiversity. (state about the Ogiek) Though these facts may not hold to be true for non-indigenous communities that dwell in the Mau forest, they do prove that human habitation in forests can be benign and sustainable. It is in the same vain that section 48 of the Forest Act (2016) allows for residents of a forest area to register a community forest association that may be permitted to participate in the conservation and management of public forest, provided that one of the members is from a forest-dwelling community. This means that a member of the Ogiek community of the Mau forest can jointly manage and conserve forest land with other residents of the Mau through a community forest association.
The plantation establishment and livelihood scheme (PELIS) has shown how effective community forest association can be in increasing tree cover since it’s inception in 2007. The scheme allows for the community to cultivate crops with newly planted trees until the trees have matured and a closed canopy forest is formed. PELIS has dramatically improved tree survival rates with areas such as Nyandarua recoding seedling survival rate as high as 79%. It has not only significantly reduced the tree establishment and management costs of the Kenya Forest Service but has also improved community livelihoods.
Implementation of such a program in the Mau forest would ensure the effective restoration of the water tower and improve national food security. This may as well prove to be an alternative to the mainstream solution of forest conservation of evicting locals first and restoring later. Resources used for eviction should instead be redirected to the rehabilitation of the forests and efforts to increase awareness and training of the local community on the importance of conserving the forest. In this way, efforts would breed a culture of sustainable community-led conservation practices.
Further, studies have shown that communities want to be involved more in restoration activities. An effective community forest association in the Mau would be able to combine the traditional knowledge of the Ogiek on indigenous trees and the human resource of residents in the planting, tendering and protection of the newly planted trees.
Eviction of communities dwelling in forest land without adequate compensation or alternative livelihood solutions does more harm than good. Not only does it lead to community displacement but intra-community conflict leaving many communities more desperate, vulnerable and socially disenfranchised than ever. Furthermore, these mainstream solutions of overcoming deforestation through eviction of people(s) from forest land are too costly for governments and more often than not, forest land remains bare years away from the eviction. Finding effective sustainable solutions to deforestation and reforestation is the only way to resolve these issues.