Nelly Bassily | August 20, 2012
It is a chilly morning in Olenguruone village on the southern flank of Kenya’s Rift Valley. But Gloria Chepng’etich is warming to the task at hand. Spread neatly on her workbench are bamboo splices that the 21-year-old will weave into floor mats over the next hour.
She will then pass the handicraft to her colleague, Zipporah Sirui, who will finish it with a colourful mix of orange, red and gray dyes. A single mat fetches around $50, enough for each of them to buy flour and save some money for a rainy day.
Aside from their work, Chepng’etich and Sirui have something else in common. Both are internally displaced persons, or IDPs. They were among the thousands of families evicted by the Kenyan government from the Mau forest complex in 2009, following pressure by environmentalists to rehabilitate the area.
The complex consists of 16 blocks of forest on the western side of the Rift Valley. It is the largest indigenous forest in East Africa, and generates and captures rainfall that is crucial for Kenya and beyond.
Evicting the forest dwellers won the Kenyan government national and international praise. Officials argued that it would reduce illegal harvesting of forest resources and create space for reforestation. But the social and economic costs have been high.
Chepng’etich says, “We were sent to the Kurbanyat IDP camp. For a long time, we relied on relief food, but the officials started stealing it.” Workers with the internationally funded BamCraft Project found the two women destitute and desperate, along with hundreds of other IDPs.
But now the IDPs have found a new way to make a living – without cutting trees – by turning to bamboo farming. At the nearby Kapkempu IDP camp, Hudson Sang’ has been piecing together processed bamboo planks, which he will craft into furniture. He sells a set of bamboo furniture for about $100. He explains: “We have about an acre of land (0.4 hectares) under bamboo. After harvesting (the bamboo), we make tables, chairs, floor mats, baskets, brooms, necklaces, sugar dishes, smoking pipes and even wine cups.” The land has been loaned to Sang’ and other IDPs by well-wishers while they await permanent resettlement by the government.
In 2000, the government passed a law which restricted the harvesting of forest resources from all government forests. The legislation requires Kenyans to seek permission from local authorities before cutting down any tree on their farms. But Sang’ no longer has to worry about the forest guards who enforce this ban. It does not apply to bamboo since the plant is classified as a giant grass.
The Kenya Forestry Research Institute, or KEFRI, has been investigating opportunities offered by non-timber products and their potential to reduce pressure on forests. Gordon Sigu is a research scientist who works with the Institute. He says, “Our research has shown that the grass … can supplement the rising demand for timber both at home and abroad.” He says bamboo grows very quickly and a farmer does not need a large piece of land to cultivate it.
Joshua Cheboiywo is KEFRI’s Rift Valley regional director. According to him, the country has the capacity to generate almost 25 million stems of bamboo per year without using too much of the country’s water supply. A lot of bamboo is currently wasted because few people understand its commercial value.
This initiative brings economic benefits for IDPs. But the government hopes that the use of bamboo as an alternative timber resource, together with enforcement of the ban on logging in the Mau complex, will help the country reach its target of increasing forest cover to ten per cent within the next 30 years.