Reclaiming and Reconciling with the Ecosystem

‘’It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees.’’ – The late Prof. Wangari Maathai

I came across an advert reading, “CHEBOR AGRI-FOREST NURSERIES,” with a list of indigenous tree seedlings, fruit trees, flowers, and seeds available as well as quantity, price, and planting season. It conveyed a message to everyone that planting a tree will plan the future. This is a timely and appealing message to all at a time when Kenya is in dire need to plant more trees. This year, 2011, is the International Year of Forests, so we are considering:

  • the role of indigenous trees and sustainable agriculture in Kenya
  • inadequate rainfall, soil erosion, poor yields, and diminishing indigenous forests in Kenya
  • Kenyan governmental policy to advocating allocation of 10% of land to planting indigenous trees
  • the issue of global warming/climate change  

Microsoft Encarta defines an ecosystem as a collection of living components—microbes, plants, animals, and fungi as well as non-living components—climate and chemicals connected by energy flow. Removing just one component from the ecosystem damages the flow of energy in the system. One vital component we have abused, yet a key player in the ecosystem, is the tree. More often, our social, economic, and agricultural practices have neglected how important a tree is.

What will Trees Do?
According to Forestry.about.com, trees are important, valuable, and necessary to our existence. It is not too hard to believe that without trees, we humans would not exist on this beautiful planet. It describes trees as the lungs of the environment, as they take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis with sunlight for the leaves to produce energy and release oxygen for breathing. Trees act as carbon sinks by locking carbon dioxide in the woods, trunks, roots, and leaves. Carbon dioxide is a key global warming suspect. Trees are also able to clean the air by intercepting airborne particles which pollute the air, such as carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. They clean soil by absorbing dangerous chemicals and pollutants that have entered it—they either store or change toxins into less harmful forms. Trees help to mitigate the effects of climate change and global warming.

As an important resource in ecological functions, trees attract rainfall and intercept and re-distribute precipitation as well as store water reserves that act as buffers for the ecosystem during drought. The root system acts as a filter for the water we use and protects the land from erosion during heavy rainfall. The roots help in firmly holding soil. Trees act as windbreakers in arid and semi-arid areas. Therefore, trees protect grass-thatched structures such as the traditional granary and houses and acts as shade where temperatures are hot. Trees act as habitat to wildlife and insects, and are a source of food, medicine, firewood, and beautification. Land planted with trees appreciates in value and sells more.

The leaf fall from deciduous trees decomposes and assists in building the organic content of top soil, adding nutrients and improving soil texture. The leaf matter attracts beneficial micro-organisms and insects like earthworms and bees which aid in decomposition and pollination.

Root systems improve drainage and aeration and fix nitrogen so that trees are able to convert nitrogen in the atmosphere into nitrogen in the soil. Some plants have certain types of bacteria which cause nodules to form on the roots. These bacteria can convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that the plant can use to build proteins. The ability of trees to recycle nutrients that may be not available to crops helps to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers in our farms. Cutting of trees causes hydrological cycles resulting in high evaporation rates in land and sea, disturbing rainfall patterns in Kenya. This has aggravated subsequent drought and desertification, having a dramatically negative impact on our socio-economic and agricultural production.

Trees and forests are an important entity in the system. There as been concerted efforts from all quarters to create awareness to save this resource. The Kenyan Government, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), non-governmental organizations, corporate companies, environmentalists, media, institutions, farmers, and individuals have come together with the common goal of greening Kenya by planting indigenous trees and protecting existing ones to make the country hospitable and habitable.

The initiative is advocated as an incentive mainly for farmers to establish productive and profitable sustainable farming systems in Kenya. It is also a way of reducing poverty, given that 90% of rural households engage in diversified subsistence farming (hence the diversification of rural economy).

In this essay, I will focus on how Chebor’s Agri-forest nursery tree holds an important role in agricultural sustainability amongst other derived tree benefits considered useful to the people. Chebor has heeded the call by doing little things and joining others in greening Kenya, improving agricultural sustainability, conserving forests, and helping to mitigate climate change by initiating the indigenous tree nursery.

Perhaps the most steadfast advocate of the answers to the future to conserve and plant trees is Christopher Chebor. A mixed small-scale farmer, Chebor is the pioneer of the nursery, together with his family. The tree project stands as unique across and beyond Kabarnet locality. The centerpiece of his work is a ¼ acre of land with a total population of 20,000 seedlings of different indigenous trees, seeds, and assorted vegetables. He started the year 2010 targeting the goal of raising two million seedlings. He has taken into account the diverse needs of different users of trees ranging from farmers to livestock keepers, beekeepers, medicine men/women, constructors, artisans, and ceremonials/rituals.

A former worker at the ministry of forestry for over 20 years, and a keen observer of the environment, Chebor has gained first hand experience in starting the nursery project, as well as the agricultural practices done nowadays in the area, an arid and semi-arid region that gave him the urge to begin the tree nursery. His work is greatly inspired by the Late Pro. Wangari Maathai, a champion for indigenous trees in Kenya.

Chebor recalls vividly a comparison between the farming of today to that of 40 years back. He is aware of how the land has lost its viability in producing quality yields of enough quantity to sustain the growing population that depends on land for agricultural activities. He attributes it to the lands’ pre-history farming practices and putting it to now farming as managing the natural resources in harmony. Many people have unlearned damaging practices, and it as not been business as usual!

After doing an in-depth assessment in the area, Chebor found that people still value indigenous trees for their multi-purpose benefits such as improving agricultural growth and economic and social development. He sees agro-forestry as the answer to rehabilitating the land, improving agricultural productivity, minimizing encroachment of wild animals to farms, reaching the 100 million targets, and reclaiming and reconciling with the ecosystem.

All indigenous trees grow naturally. Chebor’s action of mimicking nature puzzled many because nobody had attempted to raise and nurture indigenous trees before. Again, this tree nursery comes at a time when Kenya needs to plant 100 million trees a year to restore the lost and declining indigenous forests. This is urgent and every farmer has been called upon to allocate 10% of his/her land to plant indigenous trees. The nursery project has attracted many people—government officials, NGOs, and schools who come to learn or buy from him. The nursery has been his source of income, field school, a research plot, a tree rescue farm, and a hobby for Chebor’s family.

Chebor is determined to be the change in his area where trees have been cut either to pave the way for cultivation or other purposes. This has caused erratic rainfall distribution, disturbing the planting programme of farmers. Soils are infertile and susceptible to soil erosion, promising nothing but emptiness. Chebor knows that planting indigenous trees is a step forward in giving the small-scale farmer handsome returns.

According to the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), Kenya’s forests have always been a key factor in ensuring that rainfall patterns remain stable as they enable agricultural activities to thrive. However, due to massive deforestation and industrial farming systems, people no longer have access to these natural tree-given services. KFS is of the opinion that handing the growing of trees and protecting forests over to citizens will drive forward sustainability of forests and help achieve the 10% tree cover required by 2030.

More so, there has been a boost by the Government by providing soft loans to small scale farmers for planting trees to increase their income as well as increase forest cover. These loans will make tree planting an attractive, agribusiness model in Asal areas.

Tree domestication is a way of rebuilding and reconciling with the ecosystem. Integrating indigenous trees into our farms is nothing new—it only seems new because modern farming doesn’t respect biodervisity and has veered from the true practices of farming; those practices which have been occurring in traditional farming systems across Kenya.

Chebor’s nursery is designed to be lucrative, less intensive, and suitable to be adapted by his customers. The objective is to use locally available materials and grow and supply healthy environmental-adapting seedlings of multiple economic and agricultural benefits.

To him, successful nursery operations depend on factors like selecting and developing a suitable site, adequate planning, time, labour, availability of seeds and seedlings, and a person’s willingness. The size of the nursery depends on plant requirements, size of the containers, beds or polytubes used, amount of land, and nursery life of the plants.

Forest soil is collected and sieved, then mixed with ready animal manure from livestock at a ratio of 1:2 wheelbarrows. The polytubes are then filled. For the beds, a little sand is mixed in to allow aeration. Seeds of indigenous trees are collected from the forest trees while seeds of fruit trees are collected from market places, avoiding the grower spending a single shilling.

Before planting, the seeds undergo either scarification or stratification before the wildings are transplanted to the polytubes. Watering is done daily and minimal weeding and application of tea manure is done once a week to boost growth. Mulching is applied to protect beds from direct sunlight and to conserve moisture. Fencing is also erected to protect the farm from animals. Since embarking on the tree nursery project, there have been reduced cases of diseases and pest attack on Chebor’s seedlings. He gives credit to organic practices used in raising the seedlings.

At Chebor’s agro-forest, some of the seeds and seedlings found include the following:

FARM IMPROVEMENT TREES
Indigenous trees have the ability to maintain and improve agricultural production in the area by protecting water supplies, controlling soil erosion, improving soil fertility, and stabilizing soils. The ability of indigenous trees to recycle nutrients, build organic matter of top soil, fix nitrogen, and create habitat for beneficial micro-organisms such as earthworms is helpful in fertilizing the farm. Chebor notes that the advantage of indigenous trees is that they can be intercropped with annual crops to provide agro-forestry benefits. This type of tree includes Acacia albida, Acacia nilotica, Acacia tortilis, Burkea Africana, Comiphora eminii, Cordia Africana, Olea capensis, and Prunus africana.

FODDER TREES
Keeping livestock is an integral part of small scale households in Kenya. Livestock, to Chebor and others, is a source of food, wealth, income, and pride. Indigenous trees are a higher-percentage source of feed for livestock when the animals are able to graze freely in fields. Chebor’s agro-forestry has managed to raise over 10,000 different species of indigenous fodder trees and other required supplements adapted to the area, including Acacia albida, Acacia mellifera, Acacia sieberana, Comiphora Africana, Caliandra, Luekenia, and Sesbania sesban.

DOMESTIC TOOLS/ BUILDING MATERIALS
Many tools used in rural homes are traditionally made from indigenous trees by skilled artisans. Such tools range from those used in the kitchen to hunting and farming tools. One example is the hoe handle, widely used during most farming activities. Some trees important for this purpose include Acacia nilotica, Acacia Senegal, Acacia tortilis, Balanites aegytica, Croton mecalophus, Grewia bicolor, and Moesopsis eminii.

Most structures, like traditional granaries, are built using indigenous trees so that they are durable and resistant to pests. These trees include Acacia mellifera, Acacia Senegal, Balanites aegyptia, Croton mecalopus, Faidabia albida, and Tamindilia brownie.

BEE KEEPING
Most people own traditional bee hives and hang them on preferred indigenous trees. Bees look for nectar in these indigenous trees as well. Honey is a source of food, medicine, income, and traditional brew. Traditional hives are made from durable species such as Acacia albida, Commiphora eminii, Ocotea usamberensis, and Tamindilia brownie. Bees look for nectar in trees like Albizia gummifera, Acacia nilotica, Acacia Senegal, Acacia tortilis, and Grewia spp. Fodder tree like Caliandra, luekenia and Sesbania sesban.

FRUIT TREES
As a source of food and income, Chebor has the following fruit trees ready to be planted: crafted mangoes, lemons, pawspaws, avocadoes, and passion fruits. He has the seeds of different fruit trees ready to be sold.

CEREMONIES/ RITUALS
Communities have their own traditions to be performed in the bushes or under a tree, depending on what the circumstances are. Today, forests and some trees are still regarded as the dwelling place of spirits. These trees and forests are respected. For almost every function held, a tree is planted to usher in the start of an event.

Trees here also play a great role as a cleansing tool. As trees clean the soil and air, people believe that trees can absorb their sins. Prayers are done in shrines or under a big tree selected to appease the gods. These rituals include circumcisions, praying for rainfall, and casting away bad omens such as disease. Examples of these trees include Albizia gummifora, Cordia sinesis, Grewia vilosa, Grewia bicolor, Kigelia Africana, and Ficus thonningii.

It is evident that environmental crimes have a connection to the frequent droughts and famines in Kenya that have caused a loss of lives and livestock, especially in arid and semi arid areas. These negative effects can be directly addressed and acted upon through all coming together over the little act of planting a tree to ensure the expansion of forest ecosystems and help support agricultural activities in the country. Therefore, Chebor’s agroforest tree nursery is a way forward, a practical antidote, and a preventive measure for the destructive ways we have learned, internalized, and practiced in a fragile environment.

Let’s give the tree a chance, and it will do the work for us.  “Hail the Tree.’’