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“I don’t know where the firewood buyers are coming from”

How Covid-19 puts the livelihoods of forest-dependent communities at risk

by Oscar Schmidt, Serah Kiragu-Wissler, Nelson Muiru and Julius Kariara | 2021-06-17

“I don’t know where the firewood buyers are coming from”
'Social Distancing in the Market,' World Bank / Sambrian Mbaabu,

As the Covid pandemic continues to ravage the globe, some may be reminded of the urgent, but somehow rather platitudinous mantra of the UN's sustainability community: "we are all in this together". Yet, just as the effects of the climate crisis are unevenly felt around the world, it has been clear since the earliest days of the pandemic that people in precarious living conditions suffer far more from the social and economic effects of Covid than those living in comparatively safe and privileged circumstances.

The pandemic both reveals and exacerbates existing social inequities

Social inequality in the context of the pandemic has received major attention. As a case in point, a quick and rough google search on "social inequality during Covid 19" yields a mind-boggling 84,300,000 results. Many commentaries describe the pandemic alternately as a magnifying glass that has revealed existing social inequities, and as a catalyst of change that has further intensified them. At the same time, many observers aptly note that reactions to the pandemic, both political and individual, are in many cases guided less by the idea of global solidarity than by a strategy of "every person for themselves".

In the face of such tendencies, it is necessary to draw even greater attention to the situation of those who have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic and who have comparatively fewer resources to deal with this ongoing crisis. In the area of Kereita Forest in Kiambu County, Kenya, people who already must cope with precarious living conditions are particularly affected by the impact of the Covid pandemic. The forest is about 50 km north-west of the country’s capital Nairobi. Yet, despite its proximity to Kenya’s economic and political center, the living conditions of the rural population are extremely poor. The local average monthly income ranges between 35 and 70 Euros. In comparison average incomes in Nairobi lie above 450 Euros per month.

With few employment opportunities outside of smallholder farming, many community members rely heavily on the forest’s resources for their livelihood. People at Kereita collect forest products, including timber, wood fuel, fodder, medicinal herbs, and honey, both for subsistence means and for income generation through petty trade. The forest further serves as an important grazing ground for livestock, as a site for food production and as a source for fresh water. Because of its scenic beauty and high biodiversity, Kereita forest is also a destination for eco-tourism, a sector that provides seasonal employment for members of the impoverished local community.

The local non-governmental organisation Kijabe Environmental Volunteers (KENVO) is working closely with the community and the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) to conserve and restore Kereita forest. Over the years, these three stakeholders have had a successful working relationship in ensuring the forest is well managed and its resources equitably conserved and shared. However, this arrangement works best where all parties enjoy mutual benefits from the conserved resource. With the Covid pandemic setting in, the conservation efforts may be threatened if the community no longer feel certain of their benefits. A recent survey by KENVO shows how Covid is contributing to people's already tenuous situation. The community is at the brink of losing their livelihoods since the various products they get from the forest are no longer marketable.

“I don’t know where the firewood buyers are coming from and their Covid status. I fear they might bring me Covid”

Margaret, a widow living next to Kereita forest, makes income from firewood collected from the forest. She collects and sells it from her home compound. This income enables her to feed her children and pay their school fees. But since the onset of Coronavirus, her firewood income has dipped. She fears letting strangers into her compound to purchase firewood. “I don’t know where the firewood buyers are coming from and their Covid status. I fear they might bring me Covid”, she says. She has since not been able to take her children back to school. Her small farm in her compound also does not offer the security she's used to. Seeking an alternative to the previously reliable income she made from firewood, she recently grew cabbages, hoping to raise money for her children’s school fees. These are rotting in the farm due to a lack of buyers. At the moment, she does not know what to do.

Credit: Joel/KENVO
Credit: Joel/KENVO
Photo: A woman collecting firewood for sale in Kereita forest. Credit: Joel/KENVO

For many locals, the restrictions on freedom of movement also mean that their goods cannot be taken to the market. Lucy grows cabbages and keeps dairy cattle which she grazes in the forest. She makes some income from the sale of milk and from selling her harvest in Nairobi. These two activities are her sole sources of income. Lockdowns meant to curb the spread of Covid-19 saw her lose almost 50% of her milk produce as local eateries that usually would purchase her milk remain closed. She could also not conveniently transport her cabbages to Nairobi due to the numerous barriers that were erected to restrict movement, and ended up feeding the cabbages to her cows. Experiences like these are shared by a vast majority of people who rely on the sale of locally produced goods.  

Credit: Nelson/KENVO
Credit: Nelson/KENVO
Photo: Local livestock producers struggle to sell their produce because local markets have been shut down due to the pandemic. Credit: Nelson/KENVO

“I am taking my son back to school one week late. I could not get school fees.”

Collapsing incomes affect the entire family, and children in particular. Joan, who grows vegetables in a part of Kereita forest under a programme where communities take care of young trees while they grow crops in the forest, states: “I am taking my son back to school one week late. I could not get school fees. Over 70% of my income comes from the crops I grow in the forest. With Covid, I could not get to the market to sell my cabbages. I lost almost all of them”.

Covid has also led to a complete collapse in tourism, the other economic mainstay of local communities. Mbugua is self-employed as a tour guide in Kereita forest. He normally derives over three quarters of his income from guiding visitors to various attraction sites in the forest. But the onset of Covid has seen his income sharply reduced as visitor numbers nose-dived. He notes the ripple effect – the low numbers of visitors have affected not only local tour guides but also farmers who supply fresh vegetables and milk to the visitors at camping sites.

“I feel the livelihood of the community around our forest has been greatly affected and continues to be unless drastic support is availed.”

The pandemic has similarly affected those who usually take responsibility to help the local community. KENVO’s staff support the forest conservation and restoration efforts. However, aggravated by the pandemic, the organization has been forced to cut down on its labour force, laying off three staff and reducing the working hours of the remaining staff to just a few days a week. With its own capacities down and its employees at risk, KENVO is now facing major challenges to fulfil its mandate. For Nelson N. Muiru, Director of KENVO, support is urgently needed. “Overall, I feel the livelihood of the community around our forest has been greatly affected and continues to be unless drastic support is availed to support the community and organizations that support the community in their efforts to conserve their resources.”

Credit: Nelson/KENVO
Credit: Nelson/KENVO
Photo: KENVO Director Nelson M. Muiru (far left) leads an ecosystem restoration initiative at Kereita Forest and joined by partners and the Kiambu Government CEC for Water, Environment and Natural Resources David Kuria (in red shirt). Credit: Nelson/KENVO

Experiences like those of local forest users and local NGOs like KENVO at Kereita should remind us that while we are all in this together, the water reaches only up to the ankles of some, while others are on the verge of drowning. This is even more remarkable in view of the fact that the people at Kereita, in other contexts characterized by poverty and hardship, adhere just as strongly to strict rules of conduct and personal restrictions in the name of global solidarity, as the privileged few who are hardly affected by the pandemic at all. For the individuals belonging to that latter category, it is at least a reason for more humility and a reassessment of one's own worries and needs. For international politics, it is an obligation to act in consistent solidarity. 

TMG Research is working together with its local partner organization Kijabe Environmental Volunteers (KENVO) to facilitate responsible land governance and tenure security for marginalized members of the rural population. For more information on TMG’s land governance programme see here.

Title image: 'Social Distancing in the Market,' World Bank / Sambrian Mbaabu, Creative Commons

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