Counting gains of participatory forest management

For many years the government has experimented with various community-based forest conservation approaches. None of these approaches has stood the test of time like the participatory forest management (PFM) model.

Participatory Forest Management deliberately involves forest-adjacent communities and other stakeholders in the management of forests within a structure that contributes to the communities’ livelihoods. PFM has contributed to increased conservation awareness leading to better conservation of forests. It has also inculcated a sense of ownership among forest-adjacent communities who actively engage in forest conservation activities.

Communities living adjacent to forests are first required to register with the Registrar of Societies as Community Forest Associations (CFAs). The CFAs then enter into a collaborative management agreement with the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) after presenting a Participatory Forest Management Plan. Once  permission is granted by KFS to participate in the conservation and management of forest resources, CFAs are allowed to utilize certain forest resources through livelihood activities like butterfly farming, poultry farming, bee keeping, Aloe farming and sale of herbal medicine.

Participatory Forest Management was first piloted in Kenya in 1997 at Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, East Africa’s largest and most intact coastal forest. The pilot area covered three villages: Dida, Kahingoni and Kafidsoni, located in the south-western part of the forest. These villages represented a small percentage of the entire forest adjacent communities which comprise of 52 villages.

The main aim of PFM is to engage communities in the management of forests by sharing with them benefits accrued from forest resources. For starters, unusual activities hardly go unnoticed in this iconic forest. The community members are vigilant and promptly relay information on any illegal activity to the concerned authorities. Also, trained community scouts conduct regular patrols within the forest. The scouts also undertake de-snaring exercises.

Site monitoring is another activity conducted by volunteers from the community. This includes biodiversity and common bird monitoring. Data collected from these citizen science-led initiatives is used to determine the status, threats and responses at the site. The communities also engage in forest restoration activities, that not only serve to protect the environment but also improve the livelihoods of people who are dependent on the forest.

On the livelihood front, nature-based enterprises such as butterfly farming and beekeeping are being promoted to reduce pressure on the forest for sustenance. Agro-forestry is also being adopted as a livelihood option with ecological as well as economic values. Community groups have established tree nursery and donated tens of thousands of seedlings for planting in the forest while also planting some in their individual farms.

Much as there is good news to write home about, Arabuko-Sokoke Forest still faces a myriad of threats ranging from illegal harvesting of forest products such as building poles to the poaching of wild animals. This is happening despite massive investment in awareness creation against such practices, promotion of alternative livelihoods and improved forest governance. High demand for illegally sourced forest products and perceived limited access to PFM gains are some of the reasons behind the destructive activities.

As we continue to celebrate the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest PFM milestones, there is a need to critically review the extent of its reach and benefits to the target population. As much as it has been demonstrated that communities derive ecosystem benefits from the forest, these benefits may not be obvious to all, or may not be deemed sufficient. Since Arabuko-Sokoke is a conservation forest, communities do not have the opportunity to grow crops around tree plantations, which is available under the Plantation Establishment and Livelihood Improvement Scheme (PELIS).

PFM in Arabuko-Sokoke could be more successful if more households were included. Forest adjacent communities also need to be encouraged to tap into unexploited opportunities, such as the presence of wildlife in the forest, to position Arabuko-Sokoke as a tourist attraction. This will broaden revenue streams for the communities as they engage in ecotourism ventures.