TreeSisters Planting Projects

The Mount Kenya Tree Challenge


When TreeSisters asked me to represent them on a visit to the projects they are funding in Kenya, I jumped at the chance. I had for many years been intimately involved in the founding of TreeSisters, nurturing its beautiful and powerful vision into being. Additionally, the trip would be a return to a country I once lived in, knew well, and deeply loved. Upon graduating in sciences in the eighties, I had spent three years teaching maths and biology GCSE'S to the daughters of nomads in Samburu - one of Kenya's' vast and arid northern provinces. But that was 30 years ago, and I had not been back since. I was well aware that it would now be a very different place - I doubt there is anywhere on this fast changing planet that has escaped considerable change in the last thirty years. The question that I carried with me to Kenya was how much it would have changed, in what ways, and would it be for the better, or worse.

In Kenya TreeSisters has partnered with the International Tree Foundation (ITF), who are working with several local non-government organisations, plus the Kenyan government through its' Forest and Wildlife Services, to reforest the slopes and foothills of Mount Kenya. It was the International Tree Foundation who invited us on the trip to witness their work directly - an incredible opportunity for us to see the trees that the TreeSisters network are collectively funding. We were also given a goal of planting one hundred trees each over the course of a week!

The Eastern Slopes of Mount Kenya

In contrast to where I lived in Samburu, the highlands around Mount Kenya have always been rich, fertile and enormously productive agricultural land. It feeds not only its own dense population, but provides for much of the rest of the population, plus bringing in capital through the export of its cash crops. It's a stunningly beautiful area, with dramatic slopes coloured by the incandescent green of the tea plantations, contrasting with the deep green of coffee trees, and a myriad of other hues and textures arising from maize, potatoes and cabbage, spinach and other vegetables plus multiple fruit, timber and nut trees.

On our first day we were driven along winding, red-dirt roads, passing scattered single-storey mud homes, with dirt encrusted corrugated iron roofs, gradually climbing until we reached one of the tree nurseries run by local women. When 30 women came out to greet us, singing and dancing their welcome, I knew I was back in the Kenya I remembered and loved so well. Naturally, I joined in.

We spent the afternoon interviewing many of the women and they explained how the loss of the tree-cover, which they had all witnessed in their lifetime, meant that the ground could not hold water when the rains came. So instead, there were damaging floods, leading to the loss of topsoil and hence reduced soil fertility – followed later by water shortages. The impact on the farming that was their livelihood was devastating. They also explained that the water held in the highlands of the mountain made it, in effect, a water-tower feeding rivers that life depended on for hundreds of miles. They understood that by reforesting the mountain, they were helping not only themselves, but also much of the population of the country.

The projects we visited use a variety of different approaches to bring trees back to the mountain slopes, depending on the situation. The Mount Kenya Environmental Conservation, or MKEC (a local organisation) are focusing on the reforestation of degraded areas of the east Mount Kenya forest, which are home to a variety of wildlife and native tree species. The method of restoring full tree cover within the forest boundaries is to plant saplings at intervals in the denuded areas. In the past exotic (non-indigenous) trees were used but now indigenous trees are considered to be better as they better support the indigenous wildlife and soil quality.

Forest rangers escorted us deep within the forest boundaries to show us areas where the tree cover had been lost or is too thin and therefore in need of replanting. The foresters' armed protection, was not for the exotic birds or stunning black and white Colobas monkeys that swung dramatically in the trees above our heads. It was the unseen elephants that most concerned them, their large droppings indicating both their proximity and the fact that they were using the same paths that we were. Fortunately, they chose to remain unseen.

The interest, support and engagement of the forest rangers in this work was astounding to me, and a reflection of the current government's commitment to protecting the environment, and their recently adopted approach of working intimately and actively with the local community to this end. Another recent government intervention that has proved successful is the introduction of solar-powered, elephant proof electric fences, right around the perimeter of the forest reserve. It has been enormously helpful to the relationship between the human and animal populations by reducing the incidents of direct conflict between them. On the one hand it has deterred people from taking up residence within the forest, as they inevitably begin clearing trees around their new homes. On the other hand it prevents animals from trampling and helping themselves to farmers' crops, behaviour that never endears them. The rangers themselves were all exceptionally well informed, and seemed proud and committed to their role of restoring and protecting forests.

The Sustainable Tree-Based Farming Systems

MKEC also focuses on training and encouraging small local farmers to adopt more productive and sustainable tree-based farming systems, by planting appropriate trees among their other crops. They call this agroforestry. If the right species are selected and sufficiently spaced, they still allow the light through to the ground crops growing below, while the tree roots stabilize the soil and raise the water table. They also give a crop of their own - which might be fruit, animal fodder or timber - and many are even nitrogen fixing, and so enhance the fertility of the soil. When well managed, this integrated approach can maximize the yield of land while being entirely sustainably and considerably more wildlife friendly. We were taken to several examples of farms being managed in this way. The health and abundance of the land on each farm was palpable. One of our hosts fed us a lunch of avocado, mango, pineapple, passion fruit, oranges and bananas - all picked straight from trees just meters from the homestead.

As yet, not everyone has embraced this approach, and there are still many steep slopes to be seen sporting mono-crops of maize or other cash crops. It is painful to see such widespread poor practice which inevitably leads to soil erosion, and ultimately contributes to water deficiency and the deterioration of the environment. But all of our partners share our philosophy of working from the grassroots. Raising awareness and bringing whatever training and education as is needed. Deeply committed to supporting those who strive to protect and restore the land on which they live.

For this reason, MKEC are supporting women's groups to set up and run tree nurseries. We visited several, and each time the women danced to greet us and sang their gratitude for the funding that makes their work possible. These women showed a passion for the project and spoke of the support and pleasure they get from regularly meeting and working with other women. Yet, as subsistence farmers with families to support, they could not engage with such work without a return. Some of the seedlings are sold directly to other farmers and thereby give a direct income. Many of the saplings they plant themselves, on land earmarked by the Forest Service for reforestation. The small sums they are paid for each sapling produced and planted, comes from their sponsors - us.

We spent a full day together in the forest, planting 5 week old saplings in one of the denuded areas. It was hot and tiring work, our sweaty bodies making us an inviting meal stop for the many biting tsetse flies. I set myself a target of planting the 100 saplings, but by the time I had got to 72, we had between us achieved our quota of 1500 trees and there were no more saplings to plant! My disappointment at falling short of my target was assuaged when I discovered that my 72 was the day's record number of trees planted.

Follow up care for the young trees, involves keeping them free from weeds until they are sufficiently established. Normally this is about six months. We had the pleasure of spending a day traveling with the rangers to check upon a forest site planted six months previously. We were all pleased to find that about 80% of the saplings were still alive and thriving. Generally, in an unfarmed area, any survival rate over 60% would be considered a success, so our 80% was definitely something to celebrate!

The Western Slopes of Mount Kenya

During the second part of our week on Mount Kenya, on the other side of the mountain, we visited another local NGO, The Mount Kenya Trust - MKT, who we have just begun working with but who already have a well-established track record. In addition to helping fund and maintain 120km of elephant proof fencing, they have worked closely with the Kenyan Wildlife Service to counter the rampant bushmeat poaching and other illegal activity within the forest boundaries. They have also been pivotal in establishing The Mount Kenya Elephant corridor, which is a 14Km tract of land that includes underpasses to enable animals to safely cross two major highways. This allows elephants and other wildlife to resume their natural migration patterns between the Mount Kenya Forest and the extensive dry-lands of the Samburu country.

They also support tree nurseries and work with local farmers, but here they operate through a very different system to that we saw on the East side of the mountain with MKEC. Far less rain reaches the west side of the mountain, which is consequently much drier, so the landscape and farming methods are very different. And here the reduction in of the forest cover has been even more damaging. Despite the forest reserve being owned and managed by the government, in many places the forest boundary has been pushed back to an unhealthy degree. Over vast areas, little is left of the original dense tree cover, except for the occasional stump.

To achieve effective reforestation, while addressing the needs of local farmers, this land has been divided into parcels. Each parcel is allocated to farmers for their own use over a period of 6 to 7 years - on condition that they plant and nurture trees on the site. After this time period, the tree cover becomes too dense to make farming around them viable, so the farmers will then be allocated a different piece of land so the process can be repeated.

Such a scheme requires consistent management and persistent monitoring, as there is obviously a severe temptation for the farmers to sabotage the young trees in their care in order to remain on the land. Our meetings with MKT showed they were on the case and up to the task. Other agencies are operating this system, but MKT are unique in a variety of ways. Firstly they are using this method for conservation (traditionally it has been used for corporate interest in Kenya) secondly they are particularly effective as they give additional incentives to farmers to protect the trees in their care. And finally they are the only such scheme that is planting indigenous trees.

Indigenous trees have proven again and again to be slower growing but more beneficial for the conservation of the forest, rather than exotic species. For example, eucalyptus are fast growing and produce quality timber and wood for fuel, but they deplete the land around them, making it impossible for anything else to grow in its' vicinity. Even after harvesting, the land can take years to recover its fertility. Any tree species monoculture limits the biodiversity and reduces the wildlife in an area. So again, informed planning and management is essential to make agroforestry truly sustainable. We were delighted to see that all of our planting partners were strong in this respect.

By the time our tour of the projects that TreeSisters is supporting was complete, I was left enormously impressed and feeling very hopeful about the work we have collectively undertaken. Through actively engaging with what is happening on the ground, I came to understand the jigsaw puzzle that is coming into play to enable us to work together to address a global issue.

Into the Desert

I then left my companions and headed north to Wamba, the place where I used to live in the heart of Samburu district. It is a small town nestled at the foot of the Warges mountain range, in a vast, arid landscape of red earth, flat topped acacia trees, low thorn bushes and distant horizons. The rainfall is too low to support any kind of agriculture so the Samburu, the people indigenous to this land, are nomadic pastoralists by tradition.

Unsurprisingly, in a country that has doubled its population in the last 30 years, the town has grown in size, sprawling outwards into the surrounding bush land. It now has electricity and the small cafes and bars, built of mud with dusty corrugated iron roofs, each have a television - generally showing world news, music videos or football.

Yet in other respects, the place is little changed. The approach is still a single red-dirt road, which traverses miles of empty bushlands, then continues through the centre of the town before petering out at the foot of the mountain. The low stores lining the road look, if possible, even more dilapidated than I remember them. The traditionally dressed Samburu mama's, resplendent in multi-coloured exotic beads and brightly coloured cloths, continue to adorn the dusty ochre streets. The young warriors are still impressive - bedecked with beads around their heads, faces and torsos with bright coloured cloths and several weapons (knives and clubs) belted around their waists. Even Samburu dress, it seems, is subject to fashion and I noticed the warriors had taken to wearing shirts when they come into the town, and that the choice of waist-cloth, which was once consistently red, now includes a variety of colours and patterns.

I also noticed that the sheep and goats wandering the pathways looked overly thin, their ribs protruding through their skins. On our approach to the town we had passed large herds of cattle that were alarmingly emaciated. The Samburu are a tall, lean race yet many, particularly the women, were looking somewhat gaunt. Even some of the acacia trees, a hardy desert species, were showing clear signs of water stress having shed their leaves, leaving them looking black and scorched almost as if they had been burnt.

I had arrived in April, supposedly one of the two short rainy seasons of the year, yet so far the rains had failed - just as they had for the past 2 rain-seasons. As I spoke to people, I began to realise that this was an area in trouble. Traditionally the Samburu know how to manage their livestock, so that the land is not over grazed and the trees, bushes and grasses upon which they feed have an opportunity to regenerate. However, in circumstances like these, they have little choice but to feed their animals wherever they can - and I learned they were penetrating further into the mountain forests than normal, behaviour that risks denuding the mountain slopes, which would diminish the small but precious water reserve it holds.

In this area the loss of the mountain forests could ultimately turn an arid, but balanced eco-system into a desert. While the Samburu district has little agricultural importance, the untamed land harbors one of the most diverse populations of wildlife on the planet. It is home to many of the world's most threatened but much loved exotic species such as the leopard, lion, cheater, rhino and elephant as well as rare varieties of giraffe and zebra, plus multiple species of antelope and many rare birds.

Despite the low rainfall, the relationship between the highlands, the trees and the capacity of the land to hold water, is the same as that in Mount Kenya. When people learned that I had been involved in tree-planting projects there, they begged me to bring such work to Samburu.

They asked me what they should be doing, which trees they should be planting to suit their conditions, and how they could get such trees to survive through seasons of drought such as the one they are living. I had no answers.

The logic of attending first, to the fertile areas on which the country as a whole is dependent, is impeccable. Reforesting areas where growth is most rapid, will also have the greatest impact on slowing climate change by more rapidly locking carbon from the atmosphere into vegetation.

Yet my heart ached for the land and the people in the place I once lived, and I hope to find a way to bring them help. Climate change for most of the worlds' desert areas means their rainfall, which has always been limited, is decreasing even further - as a direct consequence of the loss of tree cover on the continent of Africa, and across the world as a whole. Everywhere the people of the deserts are paying a particularly high price.

The net result of my time here in Kenya, has been to reassure me that the work that is being empowered through TreeSisters is needed, valued and effective. It has also made me realise the importance of taking it to another scale. Accelerating the rate of reforestation and expanding it in into ever more areas. We;ve reached the goal of planting one million trees per year. Next target – one million trees per month. Let's do it - for us, for Kenya, and the planet as whole.

Written by Bernadette Ryder
Published September, 2017
Photos by Kenya Brading and Bernadette Ryder
The photo of the desert women of Samburu is © Marijn Kampf /

Bernadette Ryder
After graduating in sciences in the eighties, I spent 10 years as a development worker in Africa. During that time I researched and wrote a thesis on the practice of female genital cutting – a study that was awarded a Distinction. On returning to the UK, I continued working with disempowered communities, work that introduced me to many of humanity's dark corners. Post-traumatic stress and burnout eventually forced me to make a radical change, and I began teaching 5 Rhythms Dance – a practice that had been my passion and lifeline for years. Alongside dance, I taught on university social work courses and ran training courses for several international environmental awareness agencies. This lead to the founding of TreeSisters, an international reforestation project envisioned by Clare Dubois, birthed and raised with my collaboration and assistance.

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