Kenya: The return of the controversial shamba system

By Jeff Otieno
Posted on Monday, 10 October 2022 15:05

Karura Forest, Nairobi, Kenya, 2015 (Ninaras, wikimedia commons)

Kenya's new government under President William Ruto has announced a lift on the ban of the shamba system - a controversial organisation that allows individuals to farm in forests. The lift has many conservationists worried about the country’s commitment to tackle climate change. Will the government  listen to counsel from environmentalists or choose to play populist politics with the green gold?

Last month, when Ruto was in New York pleading for more support to combat climate change, his deputy was announcing the lifting of the ban on the shamba system, which has been blamed for the wanton destruction of the country’s natural forests.

“In the forest there was [a] shamba system, where people were allowed to grow maize, nurture the trees and when grown they would leave. This government is yours, we have issued an order for people to be allowed to farm inside the forest. We import maize yet we can grow more using the system,” Rigathi Gachagua said at a burial ceremony in Rift Valley’s Baringo County.

The shamba system, also known as the Plantation Establishment for Livelihood Improvement Scheme (PELIS), involves farmers tending to tree saplings on state-owned forest land in return for being permitted to intercrop food crops until the trees mature and form a canopy.

It was started during the colonial era and was meant to provide raw materials for the then expanding timber industry and to reduce pressure on natural forests.

Many other illegal practices are camouflaged under its umbrella, including agricultural encroachment into the indigenous forest through plantations

The system was retained after independence, but banned in 1986; it was reinstated in 1994 and then banned again in 2003 by the then President Mwai Kibaki due to abuse by corrupt Kenya Forest Service officials and timber millers.

Gachagua’s remarks elicited sharp criticism from communities depending on indigenous forests for livelihood and environmentalists who warned that the gains made in increasing the forest cover – one of the lowest in the East African region – will be reversed further exposing the country to adverse effects of climate change.

Illegal settlers return to  Mau Forest

In fact, illegal settlers who were removed from the vast Mau complex in 2019 took the deputy president’s statement as a green light to go back and reclaim land in protected forests.

“We have seen some illegal settlers coming back and our fear is that the gains our outgoing environment minister [Keriako Tobiko] made in recovering vast forestland will all go down the drain” says Francis Kintelei, a livestock farmer who lives adjacent to Kiptunga forest in Nakuru county, which forms part of the larger Mau Forest complex in Rift Valley.

According to Kintelei, despite the system being banned more than 10 years ago, it is widely practised in Kiptunga Forest with the help of unscrupulous forest guards.

The pastoralists complain that their grazing spaces in parts of the Mau Forest complex have been converted into farmlands under the guise of the shamba system, consequently creating tensions between them and the farmers.

“These individuals are not interested in increasing the forest cover; all they want is to convert forest land into farms. They also use pesticides, which are polluting the rivers and affecting the health of our children and animals,” says 50-year-old Kintelei.

The deputy president has since clarified that farmers “will only be allowed to farm in open spaces in protected areas”, and for illegal settlers it means being ‘legitimately’ recognised by the government.

I was evicted from Mau [Forest], but there is hope of returning

30-year-old Joshua Kinyanjui, who was flushed out of the forest in 2019 by the previous administration, says he is ready to go  back to his farm in the Mau Forest.

“I was evicted from Mau [Forest], but there is hope of returning. I am very happy that the ban on the shamba system will be lifted. We need to practice agro-forestry in forests to improve our food security,” says Kinyanjui from Muranga county.

Worries about food security 

Many Kenyans are now worried about the country’s food security as real estate development continues to eat into farmlands and farms encroach into forests, which are critical in regulating the climate.

Scientists have also warned that the commitment Kenya made to increase its forest cover from the current 7.2% to 10% by 2030 will remain a mirage if the shamba system is reintroduced.

In fact, a 2018 report titled ‘Forest Resources Management and Logging Activities’ in Kenya, produced by a taskforce established to inquire into forest resource management, revealed that indigenous forests were being over-exploited by logging and abuse of the shamba system, warning of a major environmental catastrophe if decisive action is not taken.

“The PELIS scheme has, instead, led to considerable abuse and loss of forestland. Many other illegal practices are camouflaged under its umbrella, including agricultural encroachment into the indigenous forest through plantations,” the report says.

The abuse of the scheme has not only affected forest cover, but also endangered wildlife species and interfered with wildlife corridors in forests within the Rift Valley and Central Kenya regions.

In the Mau Forest complex, for example, the report states that a ground survey revealed no sign of large mammals in 17 of the 22 forest blocs.

PeELIS provides access to land, leading to conversion of indigenous forests into plantations which are normally low-standard, , the document says.

 ‘Six indigenous forests under  serious threat’ 

George Ochieng, an environmental activist, singles out the Mau Forest, the Aberdares, Cherangany Hills Forest and Mt Elgon, Mt Kenya and Loitokitok Forest as some of the protected areas where the system is most abused.

“We need indigenous forests for our water given the fact that Kenya is a water stress country. We need them to keep our rivers flowing for irrigation and electricity generation. We need indigenous forests to act as carbon sinks,” says Ochieng who has studied Kenya’s forests for more than a decade.

He says some of the benefits associated with indigenous forests cannot be realised if the country continues to replace the unique species with plantation forests that are normally exotic trees, some of which are known to destroy wetlands.

Job Shiundu, an agricultural economist, says Kenya’s food security will not be improved through the shamba system as claimed by the deputy president.

The politicians pushing for the system are opening a can of worms and it will definitely end badly for Kenyans…

“Food security can only be enhanced if we protect our indigenous forests because of their benefits. We do not need to farm in forests to increase food production. It will only benefit a few individuals and not the whole country,” says Shiundu.

Instead, he argues that Kenya needs to adopt new methods of farming like irrigation, planting disease and drought resistant crop varieties, and encouraging agro-forestry and smart farming among others.

Mithika Mwendwa, secretary general of the Pan Africa Justice Alliance (PACJA), an African climate change activism organisation, says numerous studies done on the shamba system found that it was normally used to deforest areas and grab forestland.

“The politicians pushing for the system are opening a can of worms and it will definitely end badly for Kenyans because forestland will be grabbed,” says Mithika.

 ‘150 million trees felled every year’ 

Isaac Kalua, the former chairman of the Kenya Water Towers Agency (KWTA), a state corporation established to conserve the country’s water towers, recounts the challenges officials faced due to the abuse of the system.

“There were people who, after the seedlings were planted, poured salt water so that they would die. Some of them would uproot the young trees and plant them again to weaken their root structure. Others would engage in commercial maize farming, contrary to the agreement,” Kalua says.

The locals were so upset that those who were benefiting from the shamba system were outsiders hence they also decided to invade the forest leading to its destruction

He says the Chepalungu Forest in Bomet County was completely destroyed due to the abuse of the shamba system, which also created tension between the local residents and the farmers.

“The locals were so upset that those who were benefiting from the shamba system were outsiders hence they also decided to invade the forest leading to its destruction,” Kalua says.

He says the government has a daunting task to increase the country’s forest cover if it continues to  insist on using the controversial system for its re-afforestation programme.

“To raise 1% forest cover, studies show that you need to plant 580 million trees yet Kenya is currently depleting 150 million trees per year. We therefore need 730 million trees to be planted for us to achieve the goal. The higher the forest cover the more the rains and the higher the agricultural yields.”

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