Joseph Lesingo is a member of the Ogiek community in Nakuru County, Kenya. For Mr. Lesingo, observing the regeneration of the Mau Forest by his own community has been a cause for celebration.
Mr. Lesingo points toward a large section of the forest that had been cleared before the reforestation efforts of his community’s volunteer group. Then he gestures to the newly planted trees, saying, “When I see the expansive lush green over there, I see life.”
Julius Kamau is the director of the Kenya Forest Service. Mr. Kamau says that, by 2018, approximately 900,000 hectares of the Mau Forest had been destroyed through illegal tree harvesting and charcoal production.
The Mau Forest now covers 455,000 hectares and is the largest forest in Kenya. The mountainous forest region is commonly called a “water tower” because it’s a source of clean water for approximately six million people throughout Kenya. It also hosts many vulnerable tree species such as the parasol tree (Polyscias kikuyuensis) and the African cherry (Prunus africana).
Like many others in his community, Mr. Lesingo knew that failure to protect the Mau Forest risked wiping out his community’s culture and livelihoods. Since the beginning of British rule in Kenya, the Ogiek people have been violently displaced from their land. In the past 20 years, the Kenyan government has continued to evict hundreds of families, citing the need to conserve the Mau Forest. In a 2017 international court ruling, these evictions were ruled a violation of the Ogiek people’s land rights.
Today, the Ogiek people still have no legal land ownership documents, and evicted community members live on the boundaries of their land, or in neighbouring communities.
In 2018, members of the community started to work with forest rangers from the Kenya Forest Service to simultaneously protect the forest and provide livelihood opportunities to the Ogiek community through sustainable forest management and conservation.
Forming a group under the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program or OPDP, the volunteers work with Kenya Forest Service rangers, who give them direction and provide them with uniforms and radios. The volunteers patrol the Mau Forest in teams of 18 to help curb illegal activities, and members of the OPDP use traditional cultural approaches to encourage their community to restore and conserve the forest.
The community was initially hesitant to engage in the conservation efforts because of lingering resentment against the government. Some were hesitant to give up profitable activities such as livestock grazing and logging.
To help convince their community, the volunteer forest protectors started by educating others on the importance of supporting conservation efforts by focusing on protecting the giant mugumo trees (Ficus natalensis), which serve as shrines and places of worship for the Ogiek people.
John Sirongais chairs the Ogiek council of elders. He says this approach has been hugely motivating for the community.
Another key aspect of forest restoration has been the effort to plant native trees. In the age of evictions, the Kenya Forest Service tried to reforest the Mau Forest with exotic species. This reduced the forest’s biodiversity and root systems and spurred the Ogiek community to action. Since their own conservation efforts began, community volunteers have planted more than 60,000 native trees in the forest.
The Kenya Forest Service supports this effort by providing the community with free saplings and training on nursery management. The community has since established 18 tree nurseries and plans to encourage each visitor to plant a tree as part of the Mau Forest ecotourism plan.
Misoka Stanley is an operations officer at the Mara Elephant Project, a local NGO. He says, “The situation is changing for good and we are seeing restored forest areas and revived water systems.”
This story is adapted from an article written by Jackson Okata for Mongabay, called “Kenya’s Indigenous Ogiek partner with government rangers to restore Mau Forest” available at https://news.mongabay.com/2021/11/kenyas-indigenous-ogiek-partner-with-government-rangers-to-restore-mau-forest/ 
Photo: Community forest protectors inspect a tree nursery inside the forest. The group has established 18 tree nurseries. Image courtesy of Jackson Okata.