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Peter Lemowonapi places a fresh branch on the fence. Photo Credit: Dominic Kirui

For sparing trees, these Kenyan farmers now count blessings

In the arid north of Kenya, local herders are using an advanced technique to reclaim land from the desert.
In the arid north of Kenya, local herders are using an advanced technique to reclaim land from the desert.

On a sweltering mid-morning at Lontolio village, in dry northern Kenya’s Marsabit County, Peter Lemowonapi cuts a few branches from a young acacia tree and puts them on a hedge. Before, he would cut down the whole tree and feed it to his animals during dry seasons, but he soon found out that this worsened the drought situation. 

The 30-year-old father of six says that after receiving training from World Vision Kenya — an international non-governmental organization working in the area — he and his villagers decided to close an area of land within the village so they could regenerate trees and grow grass.

Lemowonapi is the land caretaker for Maekari, a group of 20 women and 4 men who are actively involved in reclaiming the dry and bare sandy land in their village. They have enclosed an area of land in their village and allowed tree seeds to grow from the ground. They have sowed grass as well. And because the trees and grass have flourished, the group is now setting up beehives in the enclosed area.

Innovative techniques

This method is called farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR), an innovative climate change mitigation and adaptation technique that focuses on promoting the growth of trees from already existing tree stumps or naturally-occurring tree seeds.

The technique was pioneered by Tony Rinaudo, a 63-year-old Australian agronomist who came up with the idea in the 1980s while travelling through barren land in Niger, West Africa. As tree-planting efforts were failing, he discovered root systems remained alive underground, even in the harshest, desert-like landscapes.

Rinaudo’s work has been replicated in 23 African and Asian countries after he successfully reclaimed 6 million hectares of land across the Niger Republic alone.

“We recently started growing grass here after we found out that the trees would be able to provide shade because we had stopped felling them. The shade would ensure that there is no fast water loss from the soil and so the grass would mature before the severe drought”, Lemowonapi explains. 

During the training, Lemowonapi was taught that it is wrong to fell a whole tree to feed the animals during a dry spell like he had grown up seeing his father do. “I had also started felling trees for the animals when I was a moran (warrior among the Samburu who’s mandated with herding) because I could not watch as they were decimated by hunger and thirst”, he says.

Shade and fodder are not the only boons of the new technique. As the residents are managing the growth of acacia trees, they also harvest a special type of gum that they can sell for money. When the branches they prune dry up at the fence, they remove them and use them as wood fuel before pruning fresh branches and removing the pods that they later feed to their animals. 

Peter Lemowonapi carries a freshly cut branch from a young acacia tree. Photo Credit: Dominic Kirui 

Looking for food

Africa is already struggling to feed its population as a consequence of climate change, which has seen a decline in food production. The continent’s population is also rising sharply. It’s expected to grow from 937 million people in 2014 to 2.1 billion people by 2050, a much higher rate than any other region. As the population rises, so does the demand for food and the resources needed to produce it. 

According to a study released last year by the  International Institute for Environment and Development, Africa is home to 25% of the world’s remaining rainforests and 17% of all forests, and these provide habitat for much of the region’s biodiversity. But the continent lost an estimated 15.6 million hectares of forest between 2010 and 2015, driven largely by agricultural expansion. 

Lavender Ondere, a technical specialist for natural resource management working with World Vision Kenya in Marsabit County says that FMNR not only involves pruning tree branches but also managing an area of land that is already seed bank and allowing trees and grass to grow because these are the ones most adopted to grow in these areas.

“We now have 1,296 resident farmers actively engaged in protection and management of an area of land that is about 156.44 hectares across Marsabit County, and since we introduced the practice here in 2017, we have been able to successfully sustain the milking herd that remain behind at homesteads with the women and children.”, Ondere says.

Brian Waswala, an environmental science lecturer at Maasai Mara University says that this method is good as long as it can be sustained through the years, as it allows trees to regenerate and rejuvenate. 

“When the animals eat the leaves and pods from the branches, they prevent them from being decomposed to release carbon to the ground but instead release biomass through the dung, which can be used in energy production or as manure”, he says.   

On the downside, Waswala warns that care should be taken to ensure that the trees are not over-harvested and that younger trees are allowed to mature before their branches can be cut. 

“Our women and children don’t suffer during the dry season anymore. Our lives have changed as we now have green spaces on our land, we can earn money and save our animals from trees that we were destroying before”, Lemowonapi concludes.