On the hills of Mariashoni in the eastern part of Kenya’s Mau Forest Complex, sits an old indigenous Yemdit tree with pale orange-green leaves.
A lone ranger, the tree is surrounded by fresh green commercial eucalyptus trees. A single log beehive – a traditional form of beekeeping to the region’s native population – sits firmly attached to its moss green branches.
This forest – almost unrecognizable – is home to Joseph Chemaina, who was born into Kenya’s indigenous Ogiek community in 1958, when the forest was thick with indigenous trees.
While their numbers back then were closer to 200, the Ogiek population within the Mariashoni area has jumped to approximately 1,700 people of voting age – which is 18 in Kenya – but remains only a minute representation of the estimated 15,000 adult Ogieks living in the Mau Forest Complex and 20,000 across Kenya. Because of the limited data on Ogiek families, these numbers are misleading. With an estimated average family size of ten people, the forest’s Ogiek population could actually be closer to 150,000 people.
“I was born in the forest and when I opened my eyes, all I saw was a forest. A thick forest; every inch you moved, a shrub or tree squeezed your shoulders,” said the 57-year-old Chemaina.
Each family had its own territory surrounded with a canopy of trees stretching up to 100 meters high.
Here, high atop these branches, the Ogieks would affix log beehives, the backbone of their simple economy. Honey gathered from these hives provided a reliable source of food, income and medicine.
“Honey was in plenty, one Ogiek could have up to 800 beehives,” said Chemaina.
Bees collected nectar and pollen from the indigenous trees, which flowered in different seasons of the year due to regular rainfall and flowing streams.
Back then, the forest provided an abundant source of food and water for the community and Chemaina said he could pick a variety of wild fruits and hunt for rabbits under its dewy cover. Experience had taught the Ogiek to expect brief rains from February to April before the onset of heavier rainfall during the second half of the year. Never, said Chemaina, did it disappoint them.
Under these conditions, the flowering season stretched from November to March and the honey harvest yielded ample returns.
“Each beehive produced more than 100 kilogrammes of honey,” he explained.
The Ogieks consider nectar and pollen from the indigenous Tongotwet and Kureyet trees to be very special, and used the dark brown honey as a remedy for chest, stomach, nerve and bone problems.
It was also used as a cure for injuries and fever in children. Expectant mothers drank the thick, dark substance like milk and it served as a disinfectant and wound sanitizer during delivery.
“We survived without the worry of diseases because honey was a powerful dose of medicine,” Chemaina said. But the once rich supply of these indigenous trees began to diminish after illegal logging, charcoal burning and other human activities caused extensive destruction of the forest. Rainfall patterns became less predictable and many local flowering plants started to disappear.
Medicinal honey is now a rarity that the Ogieks are forced to accept.
Chemaina now counts only 37 beehives on his 30-acre territory, compared to some 700 he had until early 1990s. “Bee keeping is my life and the life of Ogieks,” he said. “I want to have that life of dense forest back. I want a reverse of the weather patterns – to have the rains as normal.”
But harvesting has been reduced to once in a year and on many occasions, Chemaina has been forced to skip seasons due to lack of honey. Where he used to get 100 kilogrammes from each beehive, he now gets less than 10.
Despite these weather-related challenges, Chemaina said nothing will detach him from the traditional system of rearing bees. He said the demand for the special medicinal honey is even higher since cold weather ailments are affecting him and fellow community members.
“I still need it to help with my chest and fever. It has now become a common problem I have to deal with and hospitals were never part of our lives,” he said.
Augmenting these environmental stresses, the ruthless destruction of the forest over the last two decades has cost the forest community an abundance of wild rabbits, fruits and indigenous vegetation that is critical to their survival.
As early as 1990, people invaded the Mau forest to burn trees into charcoal, an activity that decimated the forest and drove away much of the bee population. By 2000, this damage had spread to more than 100,000 hectares of the forest.
According to United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), up to 107,000 hectares of the Mau Forest Complex’s 416,000 hectares were destroyed between 1990 and 2001.
Cosmas Ikiugu, head of Mau Conservancy in the Kenya Forest Service, said much of the eastern and western parts of the Mau Forest Complex were heavily degraded.
It’s here that more than 150,000 people – including Ogieks – have illegally settled, extending the destruction that the forestry agency admits is a challenge that requires a multi-sectoral approach.
High carbon emissions, soil erosion and decreased groundwater levels are only some of the byproducts of these damaging human activities.
“By 2008, the Mau River was actually drying up. Lake Nakuru which depends on the river was facing a major problem of low water levels,” said Ikiugu.
Teresia Chemutai, a 53-year-old Ogiek woman, said the community relies on water from the Mau River during the dry period since there is no more water flowing freely under their feet.
Groundwater streams such as Segut, Ndoswa and Napuyapui are now extinct, she said.
Women, she said, never went out to hunt for wild meat, rear or harvest honey to feed their families during their days in the forest. But that has changed.
“There is too much work for Ogiek women nowadays. There have to walk long distances to get water, go out to look for food just as men. They bear the burden of ever sickly chicken and give birth to weak children,” she said.
Under bleak circumstances, the Ogiek have reluctantly moved to crop and livestock farming. But the chemical pesticides used to treat the crops is also threatening what’s left of their precious bees.
Chemutai said she started farming in 1997 after the government apportioned her and a few other Ogieks land in the forest. Non-Ogieks that they refer to as “invaders” also received land allocations and to date, the issue remains a grievance that the government has yet to address.
The Ogieks left without government-granted land started farming areas within the territories they originally inhabited.
Chemutai currently has three acres of maize and one of potatoes, but says the practice has been difficult to learn.
“I have been farming for years now, but I still feel I am not used to it,” she said.
And just like the trees and flowering plants that have slowly died off, their crops remain susceptible to changes in the weather patterns.
Dry spells threaten maize and potatoes – the main food staples now grown in this area. Many Ogieks still remember a devastating drought that struck the region in the mid-90s.
“We were shocked and worried over the happenings. The crops dried and very little was available for consumption,” said Joseph Barngetuny, a 56-year-old Ogiek farmer.
Recognizing these challenges to traditional ways of life, Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture is educating members of the Ogiek community on the practice of modern beekeeping. “Traditional beehives are no longer productive due to the changed habitat,” said Phillip Owiti, an apiculture officer with the agricultural ministry. “The bee colonies have reduced as a result of unsuitable conditions for survival.”
So far, he said, they have trained 275 Ogieks from Mariashoni who have embraced modern beekeeping.
“We are making all efforts to help them (Ogieks) change their socio-cultural attachment to the environment because the climate change is not sparing their traditional way of keeping bees,” he said.
But results have been mixed. Joseph Barngetuny is one of the farmers who shifted to modern beekeeping. He currently occupies 30 acres of land in Mariashoni and has eight portable beehives, which unlike the traditional log beehives can be erected on sheds or other structures around a farm.
Each, he said, produces no more than 10 kilogrammes of honey, a low production he partly attributes to lost bee colonies, contaminated flowering plants and lack of adequate water sources.
Because of the inadequate harvest, he must continue to grow maize to meet the financial needs of his 20 children from two wives. Though he consumes the honey he produces, he said it has lost the ingredients that made it a special food for the community.
But even more troubling still, the Ogieks lack legal claim to the land they have worked so tirelessly to till. Though they say it’s their ancestral right, it’s a subject that’s rarely mentioned or talked in community circles.
Nahashon Kiptoo, a member of the Ogiek Council of Elders, compared the community’s lack of title deeds to an open wound awaiting a very strong antidote to heal.
“I have developed ulcers imagining us being displaced from here. We fear of other people acquiring title deeds for the parcels of land we are currently occupying. That will be disastrous to us,” said Kiptoo.
The acquisition of title deeds is just one of their pressing needs. The Ogieks also wish for a section of the forest to be officially declared as their secluded home.
Kiptoo said that since their lives begin and end in the forest, they should be allowed to live freely as they did before.
“We will be very happy to go back to [traditional ways of life in the forest]. We miss that life of jumping from one tree to another like monkeys,” said the elder. “We were very strong. We could fall from a 100 metre tree and never died.”
The Ogieks also want a fresh audit of their members to determine how many are in need of title deeds. Findings of a survey done in 2010 by the Interim Mau Restoration Coordinating Secretariat are yet to be made public.
Joseph Towett, who participated in the survey, said the adult Ogiek population in Mau Forest Complex were originally approximated to be 11,000 people. But he puts the current figure closer to 15,000.
“That list is now outdated and several things have changed since then. We need title deeds, support to establish sustainable livelihoods since climate change has adversely affected our lives. We also need engagement in the conservation of Mau,” said Towett, who also chairs the Ogiek Council of Elders.
Ikiugu, the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) official, said their concerns over land ownership and engagement in proactive conservation activities is something the government has and will continue to put effort to address.
“We realize that security over land gives them long-term control over the conservation activities in the area which eventually determines rate of climate change,” said Ikiugu.
Ikiugu said they are encouraging the Ogieks to form Community Forest Associations through which they will legally access the benefits accrued from the forests including allocation of land in the forest for cultivation.
A piece of legislation passed in 2005 legalised a system of forest cultivation to forest adjacent communities. Known as the Plantation Establishment for Livelihoods Scheme (PELIS), it allows for community members to access and manage forest land. They are allowed to graze cows and plant crops on a designated plot of land for three years, as long as they also grow trees with certified seedlings provided by KFS. The seedlings are a mix of indigenous and exotic species, with limitations of what can be harvested for timber, but enforcement remains a major challenge.
So far, officials say that 70,000 hectares have been rehabilitated through concerted efforts between the state’s forestry agency and non-state actors, namely the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), among others.
Exotic species such as eucalyptus, cypress and pine have been introduced in 50,000 hectares while the rest has been restored with indigenous trees, Ikiugu said. He believes that high water levels at the Mau River swelling up Lake Nakuru and Mara River are outcomes of the intensive restoration activities at the water tower.
“There is an overflow of water into Lake Nakuru presently submerging houses belonging to the officials at (Lake Nakuru National Park),” said Ikiugu.
But Timothy Kiogora, the Nakuru county environmental director, said he remains concerned over the continued practice of the harmful human activities in the forest. Dealing with it requires commitment from all stakeholders, he said.
“It is one thing to tell people about the effects of destroying the forests and how to conserve it but it becomes another issue in converting the information into results,” said Kiogora.
“For people who depend on the forest, you must be able to give them the best alternative to be able to sustainably protect the forest against any destruction,” he added.
The county official said they have outlined effective strategies on educating communities living in the Mau Forest Complex on use of solar and other energy saving cooking stoves to save the forest.
While the government strives to rehabilitate the Mau Forest Complex and assist the Ogieks in adapting to changes in the climate, the community continues to hope that the bees will return.
“It tells a lot about the value of our environment,” said elder council member Kiptoo. “Only by recognising the value of indigenous trees and the ecosystem they enjoyed will we have again stocks of the honey.”