Community Engagement and Employment
Ngong Road Forest is an urban forest and to thrive it must be relevant to the citizens it seeks to serve. It needs to cater for those whose demands range from subsistence to recreation. Involving those who neighbour the forest and enlisting their support is critical if this plan is going to succeed.
An important differentiator to the Ngong Road Forest rehabilitation plan is its solid commitment to working in partnership with the local communities which neighbour the forest. This community component is not just a nice to have: the size of the slums bordering the forest and their current use of the forest, could fatally undermine the success of the whole scheme. At present, the forest provides some residents of the slum with their only income, be it through logging or collecting and selling medicinal herbs. Take this away and the forest risks becoming a play place for the elite; largely irrelevant – and so resented, by the wider community.
Diverse communities neighbour the Ngong Road Forest, ranging from the affluent residents of Miotoni, Forest Edge, Karen and Dagoretti to the slums of Muituini Village, Lenana/Ngong Road, Riruta and Kibera. The Kibera slum that lies adjacent to the east of the Ngong Road Forest is one of the largest in Africa. Population figures are difficult to pin down but it is thought that in the region of 200,000 people find their home there.
There is an understandable and growing tension between the residents of the northern suburbs and the high-density slum areas. The forest has become a battleground for this tension as different voices debate its function and future.
Right now there are various forest resources - water, herbs, honey, fuel and wood that adjacent communities rely upon to eke out a living. But the relationship between the citizens and the forest is not sustainable: individuals currently extract what they need in an ad hoc and unplanned way. If this carries on not only will their livelihoods be destroyed, but the long-lasting future of the forest will be too.
The challenge is that the expectation of the local communities, particularly those resident in Muituini Village, Lenana/ Ngong Road, Riruta and Kibera, is extremely high and unlikely to be met in whole by this plan.
This means an important element of the Ngong Road Forest plan will be education – raising awareness that while commercial activities and involvement can continue in an ordered and pre - described way for some residents, wholesale asset stripping by large numbers of the slum population is untenable.
Example activities include:
Fallen firewood collection
Bird watching / animal guiding
At present approximately 12 people are employed in the forest. This is an insufficient number to patrol and staff a forest of this size; as security measures are introduced and ecotourism activities grow, the direct employment figure will rise, with associated salary costs.
The rangers currently working in Ngong Road Forest are primarily guards; in time their role will grow and they will be joined by local scouts drawn from residents of Muituini and Kibera. These rangers and scouts will be trained in different aspects of forest management, visitor guiding and hospitality as well as security, fire prevention and firefighting. One idea is to introduce rangers on horseback to provide protection to the forest in a low- impact way; were this approach to be adopted the rangers would also be trained in horse riding and care of the horses and equipment.
The forest itself can sustain livelihoods in a sustained and pre-planned manner. Small scale commercial activities in allocated areas and within the plantations zones could include:
• Timber products - for example, controlled Muhugu growing for wood carving or collection of forest leaf and wood litter to make briquettes
• Non-timber products - collection of wild fruits, herbs and other medicinal plants, also plant nurseries
• Beekeeping, butterfly farming and fishing
• Bird watching/animal watching guides
The Role of Women
Women living in the slum communities are already involved on a very small scale in commercial activities within the forest. Traditionally, these women collect wood to make into briquettes.
A new idea has been the introduction of bee- keeping; currently about 20 women work as beekeepers and their honey is sold as Ngong Road Forest Honey. This scheme could be extended so that the women themselves form a co-operative and sell the honey they are collecting, rather than relying on middle men. In this way the Ngong Road Forest becomes a vehicle for women to organise themselves as social entrepreneurs.
Similar co-ops could be formed for butterfly keeping, the collection of medicinal herbs or nurseries (see Tree-preneurs example). In this way, the livelihood of the local women is tied to the protection of a healthy, productive forest environment; through their business activities they become advocates for a sustainable future for the forest.
The Tree-preneur, “Trees for Life” programme was established by the Wildlands Conservation Trust in South Africa and could be easily replicated in the Ngong Road Forest. Local people forage for seeds in the forest; bring them home and plant them in their garden or homestead nurseries. Nurtured and watered, these seedlings quickly grow into healthy saplings. When they reach a certain height the women (and men) barter them with Wildlands who then replant the trees in areas in need of restoration. In return for the saplings, the women are provided with vouchers, which they can then spend in local markets or put towards education support, Jojo tanks, groceries or building materials. In this way neighbouring communities help repopulate the forest, and earn goods (or an income) as they go. A similar scheme has been introduced with the Waste-preneurs, “Recycling for Life”, which sees women and men collecting rubbish and keeping the forests clean; then exchanging their rubbish, according to the weight value, for vouchers.