Saving Kenya’s last sacred forests
Mijikenda people protect forests along Kenya’s coast, but pollution from quarries could force guardians to leave
* Ancient forest villages stretch along 200 km of the Kenyan coast
* Nearby mines fuel huge state-sponsored infrastructure project
* Local fishermen say quarry waste affects their catches
By Federica Marsi
KILIFI COUNTY, Kenya, June 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Dressed in a cowry crown and traditional badges, Hillary Mwatsuma sang a prayer to the ancestors who rest in Kaya Kauma, one of 45 sacred forest villages scattered around along the southern coast of Kenya, since the 16th century.
The thick canopy encircling the ancient kayas, or villages, once protected the Mijikenda community from attack by enemy tribes, until locals moved to neighboring villages in the 1940s.
Today, the 200 km (124 miles) of kaya forests are protected as ancestral homes of the Mijikenda, while the trees help the community escape the worst effects of climate change, such as floods and landslides. .
“Trees are home to cultural places and cultural places protect nature,” Mwatsuma said.
But now the kayas face a new threat – nearby quarry operations which locals and researchers say are polluting local water sources and could one day force forest protectors out of the area.
“They are digging deep into the mountain,” the 63-year-old spiritual leader told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, referring to several companies mining the murram – a type of gravel – in the nearby village of Jaribuni.
The village slopes down to the Ndzovuni river, on which the Mijikenda depend for fishing and agriculture.
“We are very worried that this may affect our kaya,” Mwatsuma said.
Figures from Kenya’s National Bureau of Statistics show that the mining and quarrying sector was worth over 67 billion shillings ($ 620 million) in 2019, or 0.7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
The Kenya Chamber of Mines, an industry association, estimates that around 60 mining companies are currently operating in the country, employing more than 5,200 people.
Scientists and environmentalists say Indigenous communities play a vital role in acting as stewards of forests, which store carbon that warms the planet and contributes to food security.
According to a March report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), in indigenous regions of Latin America, deforestation rates between 2000 and 2016 were less than half of those in non-indigenous areas.
Kenya’s National Environmental Complaints Committee (NECC), which is mandated to investigate environmental degradation, released an internal report in 2020, viewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which said Kaya Kauma is currently “in endangered due to mining activities in the region ”.
Falling rocks and dust from mining activities entered the water sources that feed the Ndzovuni River, according to the report.
He went on to claim that a number of companies have used polluting chemicals in the extraction process, which “poses risks to the health of downstream water users,” he said. .
The NECC report said more than 16 companies were operating in a quarry near Kaya Kauma and singled out the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) for dumping limestone waste into the river.
State-owned CCECC did not respond to requests for comment.
George Oyoo, director of the National Environmental Management Authority for Kilifi County, which includes Jaribuni, said it had not been possible to verify the report’s claims due to the COVID pandemic. 19 and the dry season.
Oyoo said his agency told companies to minimize rockfall and dust generated during the mining process.
“It was agreed that the quarry operators should water the path taken by the trucks,” he said. “Unfortunately, they couldn’t do it because of the drought in the area.”
CHANGES IN THE WATER
Fishermen say they have noticed changes in the water since mining began three years ago.
“Previously, shrimp spawned upstream, but now the water is milky (from quarry waste), so they spawn lower,” said Christoph Musuko, a 41-year-old fisherman living in the nearby village of Muhoni.
As a result, young shrimp are caught in the nets, which reduces the catch and makes the practice less sustainable, he said.
Part of the murram and ballast mined from Jaribuni is shipped to Lamu, an island on the north coast of Kenya, to supply the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) worth $ 25 billion.
The project promises to connect Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and South Sudan with a rail line, several airports and an oil pipeline, transform Kenya into a middle income country by 2030.
Maryama Farah, senior program manager at Natural Justice, an indigenous rights group, said the project’s environmental impact assessment failed to consider a number of factors, including grazing roads of wildlife, water stress and loss of biodiversity.
LAPSSET could cause “long-term damage and negative impacts on host communities,” Farah said in a telephone interview.
The LAPSSET authority did not respond to requests for comment.
LIFE WITHOUT THE FOREST
Along with large infrastructure projects, growing demand for agricultural land and wood products for fuel and a population that has doubled since 1992, according to World Bank figures, is putting pressure on Kenya’s forests.
The country has lost 11% of its tree cover over the past 20 years, according to estimates from the Global Forest Watch satellite monitoring service.
“In some places, the kayas are the only existing wooded areas,” said Lawrence Chiro, a conservation officer with the National Museums of Kenya (NMK).
“Sometimes we have heavy rains, flash floods. Without the kayas, the ground would drain and people would have to be moved.”
Kaya Kauma is one of nine villages in Mijikenda to be granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status and, according to Chiro, 37 of the villages have been classified as National Monuments and eight as Forest Reserves.
Yet those safeguards may prove insufficient, warned Chiro, who works at the Coastal Forest Conservation Unit, a branch of the NMK created three decades ago to protect the kayas.
If the water quality gets bad enough, he said, the Mijikenda could be forced to abandon the area, ending centuries of kayan care.
For his part, Mwatsuma, the spiritual leader, cannot imagine a life without the forest.
“We have history through the kaya, we have science through the kaya and we have prayers,” he said.
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($ 1 = 107,8500 Kenyan shillings) (Reporting by Federica Marsi, edited by Jumana Farouky. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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