“Protect our forest so that our today, tomorrow and future is assured” says an elder, looking straight into Mr. Mbugua’s eyes.
I’m in an office in Nairobi with representatives of the Aweer community, an indigenous tribe living in the coastal forests of Lamu County. WWF has arranged for the group to come to the capital to meet the Director of the Kenya Forest Service (KFS). They want to hand over a petition, containing a request to KFS to support the community in managing their forests and culture.
This is the first time that some of the Aweer community members from Lamu County have visited Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. They are amazed by the many vehicles, skyscrapers, and the crowds of people moving fast in the street. Most amazing to them are the lifts and escalators.
Most of them have not been to the city before. It’s a stark difference from their life in the forest. Many expected to see the buffaloes and baboons they are used to seeing at home. But there is no forest here…only many tall buildings slanting like they will be falling down soon.
The group is en-route to visit similar forest communities in another part of the country. But that visit can wait for another day, because first there is another mission to be completed.
Today the Aweer have a date with destiny.
WWF has arranged for them to present their petition to the KFS Director. Mr. Mbugua has been informed that we are on our way. He has a lot of question marks on their motives – why and where are they coming from? But he is also filled with curiosity waiting for the community members to arrive and have their say.
The petition is delivered. This is the first time the community representatives have met face to face with such a senior KFS official. Many are eager to meet him.
The Director has heard of the Aweer community but, as he later tells then, he has never met them before.
The community members describe the social and spiritual values and the benefits they derive from their forest. They talk about herbal medicines, wild honey, wild fruits and berries during dry season. They explain how they use the sacred forest areas for their graves and shrines.
Within the petition is a request for the ‘gazettement’ of Lungi forest – that is, for it to be designated as a new Forest Reserve. The community members passionately express their fears over looming internal and external threats arising from development of infrastructure. In particular, they are concerned about the ‘Lamu Port – South Sudan – Ethiopia Transport Corridor’ (known as LAPSSET). This is a huge infrastructure project that the Kenya government is undertaking near their forests.
Formal protocol is not followed. The community demand an answer from the KFS Director before they leave his office!
Mr Mbugua assures them that a quick task force will be put together to look into the community’s concerns. He promises to act on their request in less than two weeks, with steps including:
- Agreeing budgets and timelines
- Surveying and confirming forest boundaries
- If there are no reservations, officially ‘gazetting’ the forest to protect it from development
A month has now passed since the meeting and KFS has indeed begun the process of gazetting the forest.
WWF has facilitated the process and is providing support to community consultative meetings. These will be held to discuss benefit sharing arrangements with KFS. That means agreeing what natural resources they can harvest sustainably from the new reserve, the forest boundaries and how the forest will be jointly managed by the community and the authorities.
The long journey has begun towards protecting this forest and its rich array of plants and animals, many of which are unique and endangered.
The community is delighted to finally see a long held dream being finalized.
However, the Aweer will only celebrate when the forest is fully protected from encroachment and there is a full and agreed benefit sharing arrangement in place with KFS. But a bright light has began to shine at the end of the tunnel!
We wish to acknowledge and thank the financial support offered by the Size of Wales and the UK government through the DEFRA/DFID Darwin Initiative and DFID’s PPA with WWF-UK.