Solar panels for trees? Kenya barters to rebuild its forests

By Kathryn Werntz NYERI, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In an effort to reverse tree losses in the Nyeri Forest, an environmental initiative has turned to an unusual barter system, offering chickens, goats or solar panels in exchange for tree planting. "It is a win-win situation," said Joram Mathenge, director of the Kiangure Springs Environmental Initiative (KSEI), based in central Kenya’s lush highlands. Nyeri County, known for its tea and coffee production, is home to the late Nobel Peace Prize winner and environmentalist Wangari Maathai. It has the highest tree cover in Kenya – but its forests are dwindling as a result of human encroachment, some of it driven by climate change pressures on agriculture and water. That loss of forest is problematic for more than Nyeri County itself. The forested hills are a vital water catchment that supplies neighboring regions, and as the trees disappear erosion worsens, rainfall decreases and water supplies dry up. Increasingly irregular rainfall attributed to climate change has led to crop failure, driving farmers to cut down trees for income and to graze their animals in the forest. Trees damaged by animals are particularly vulnerable to falling in strengthening flash floods, experts say. To replenish Nyeri County’s forests and protect its water catchment, two innovative programs have turned to bartering. The programs offer residents a "gift" in exchange for their help in the reforestation effort. KSEI’s reforestation program lets people choose from chickens, goats or subsidized energy technology – biogas systems, solar energy packs or efficient cookstoves. In exchange, recipients agree to plant 5,000 trees a year and look after them until they are strong saplings. "That may sound like a lot of work," Mathenge said, "but the people know that the time saved cutting firewood (efficient cookstoves generally cut firewood use by 50 percent) and the increase in income from having chickens or goats is well worth it." Peter Thaithi, one barter participant, said the program has helped more than just his small holding, which now includes cows, goats, a solar panel, a cookstove and rainwater harvesting equipment. "Every time a tree is planted, I know the entire community benefits," he said, smiling. TREES FOR TENURE Another barter system in the area offers a different kind of trade-off: Tree planting for longer tenure on the land. When rivers in the region began to run dry two decades ago, some residents of Nyeri County took a government handout of cleared forest land parcels, which had a better water supply. The problem is the parcels were taken – and then given out - in what may have been irregular deals, Mathenge said. The Kenyan government has now devised a scheme to recapture these lands, which are key to protecting the water catchment. Farmers are allowed to stay on the land temporarily, continuing to farm as long as they plant and look after tree saplings. Once the saplings reach maturity and begin to shade the farmers’ crops, the farmer must leave. "Instead of chasing them out with a whip, they instead push people off the land slowly and in a sustainable way,” Mathenge jokingly explained. "In the past, people would be pushed off the land for reforestation. At night, they would rip up the saplings and destroy their roots,” Mathenge said. Now that problem is disappearing, he said, as farmers gain a better understanding of the value of tree cover. Reforestation programs in the area also have cut forest losses by harnessing an unusual ally: HIV-positive people in the region. Nyeri County suffers from a moderately high HIV prevalence rate, which UNAIDS estimates at 3 percent. That status can drive deforestation, Mathenge and other environmentalists said. "First, we've noticed that people who are HIV positive often resort to cutting down the trees in desperation to pay for the anti-retroviral drugs which are not always free,” Mathenge explained. "And perhaps they need money for food with higher nutrition, (which is) important to living a healthy life with HIV.” "Further, HIV infection rates are highest among people in exactly the same age bracket from which we need people to be economically productive and contributing to the work of environmental conservation,” Mathenge said. As a result, "we work with HIV-positive people and AIDS orphans," he said. "We must have a healthy community to have a healthy environment." (Reporting by Kathryn Werntz; editing by Laurie Goering)