Geographies in Depth

Kenyan farmers are 'tree hopping'

Men from the Ogiek community harvest honey in Mount Elgon game reserve, where they have reached an agreement with the government allowing them to remain in their ancestral lands in western Kenya, April 26, 2016. REUTERS/Katy Migiro - D1AETEYQEOAB

Kenyan law prohibits the felling of trees without a permit, even on private farms. Image: REUTERS/Katy Migiro

Kagondu Njagi
Contributor, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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The sun beat down on Samuel Rono's farm in Kerita, a village in southern Kenya, as six young men struggled to load one of several large trees into a waiting truck.

"They (the trees) are not for making timber," Rono explained. "They are being moved to a new location to be planted there."

By removing a few trees from his 10-acre (4-hectare) farm, Rono can make more space for his livestock to graze and for him to grow more maize.

But, instead of simply cutting down the 16-foot (5-metre) trees - and potentially breaking the law - he sells them to other farmers who need more trees on their land.

The locals call the technique "tree hopping", and it is gaining popularity with Kenyan farmers who are trying to produce more food on limited amounts of arable land without further damaging the environment.

Tree hopping involves digging up mature trees where they grow close together and relocating them to areas where forest is more scarce.

Putting some more space between trees can let in more sunlight and make an area's micro-climate more suitable for farming, said Laban Gitiba, the sub-county forest officer in Kerita village.

At the same time, transplanting the trees helps restore degraded areas, Gitiba told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"It will create a new home for birds, insects and other organisms which contribute to improving soil fertility."

A group of young men transport uprooted trees from Samuel Rono’s farm in Kerita village, southern Kenya, onto a waiting truck. The trees will be transplanted to another location. August 28, 2018. Image: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kagondu Njagi

Moving forests

At Rono's farm, a mix of indigenous and exotic trees grow among the fields of maize and wheat. Other trees fence the paddocks where his cattle and sheep graze.

Trees can help shelter plants and animals from the sun and protect crops from being damaged by strong winds.

But the dense canopy of the trees on his farm often stunts plant growth and creates a chilly environment for his animals, the 67-year-old farmer said.

Kenyan law prohibits the felling of trees without a permit, even on private farms. Permits are only granted if the landowner can prove there is an urgent need to cut down the tree - if there is a risk it will fall over in a storm, for example.

The government also obliges all landowners to have trees on at least 10 percent of their land, as part of its commitment to the United Nations' goal to "increase forest area by 3 percent worldwide by 2030."

Currently, 7 percent of Kenya is covered by trees. Over five million trees are cut down every day for firewood, charcoal or other uses, according to Isaac Kalua, chairman of the Green Africa Foundation.

Tree hopping allows farmers to legally thin out their forests while helping others boost the number of trees on their land, experts say.

Chachu Ganya, a member of the Kenyan parliament's committee on environment and natural resources, said moving trees can be particularly helpful in stabilising rainfall - and avoiding conflicts - in areas where trees have disappeared.

Ganya said only about a fifth of Kenyan land is suitable for farming, and that figure is declining due to reduced rainfall and land overuse.

"When arid areas benefit from this fast way of reforestation, their pasture will be protected by the natural climates that trees create, reducing tensions", he said.

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The technique can also be a good income generator: Rono said he earns about 2,000 Kenyan shillings ($20) for each tree he sells.

Besides the purchase price, buyers also pay for transport, which can cost $20 to move a set of trees within a five-kilometre range, Rono said. Digging up trees, and digging holes to replant them is usually done by hand, he said.

Gitiba, the forest officer, said about a thousand trees had been moved so far this year in the Rift Valley's Uasin Gishu County, which includes Rono's farm.

 Mature trees are transported from Samuel Rono’s farm in Kerita village, southern Kenya. The trees will be transplanted at another location. August 28, 2018.
Mature trees are transported from Samuel Rono’s farm in Kerita village, southern Kenya. The trees will be transplanted at another location. August 28, 2018. Image: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kagondu Njagi

Training - and cost

Farmers in other parts of the country think adopting "tree hopping" could help them as well.

Kioko Mutuku, 38, a farmer from the village of Kivaa in eastern Kenya, said he has seen the villagers' reliance on charcoal burning deplete the area's indigenous trees over the years.

He thinks if his neighbours cover their farms with trees, they could start to heal the degraded land. But the neighbours complain the trees take too long to mature, he said.

"This is why farmers are planting fast-maturing trees like blue gum. But the (Australian native) trees end up sucking up underground water," the father of two said.

Bringing over mature native trees would speed up the process of restoring the environment, he added - but no one in his village is familiar with moving larger trees.

"I would like to use this method here, but I do not know an expert who can help me with the skill," he said.

Gitiba said the Kenya Forestry Service, a government agency, is organising farmer field days to show farmers how tree hopping works.

But for many farmers, lack of training is not the biggest obstacle.

Njue Njagi Kaithungu, a county executive in Tharaka Nithi County, said the reason tree hopping is not catching on across the country is that many families cannot afford the cost of transporting the trees or buying them from other farmers.

"At the end of the day, a poor household will choose to spend on food, shelter and health first before embarking on labour-consuming tasks," Kaithungu said in a telephone interview.

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