A woman of the Ogiek people tends her herbal tree nursery. Women are taking a larger role in addressing climate change impacts as Kenya devolves more power to its regions. ALERTNET/David Njagi
By David Njagi - 19 March 2012
MERU, Kenya (AlertNet) – For the first 24 years of her marriage, Philista Cianjoka’s only source of income was attending to births and performing female genital cutting on adolescent girls.
But recently Cianjoka stopped these practices and began working full-time in agriculture.
Her shift of occupation was prompted by the increasing adoption of agro-forestry, a system of farming that combines planting trees with growing food crops.
It is one of a number of initiatives that are seeing Kenya’s rural women become more involved in securing their livelihoods while combating the effects of climate change.
Agro-forestry is generating a good yield, says Cianjoka, even in the face of erratic weather patterns that have left her two-acre farm in Muiru village parched, like many other rangelands in the lower parts of Tharaka Nithi county, northeast of the capital, Nairobi.
In January, Cianjoka harvested an impressive range of sorghum, cowpeas, pumpkins and sweet potatoes - some of the drought-resistant crops that research organisations have recommended for arid and semi-arid parts of Kenya.
Unlike in previous years, when land after the harvest would be left bare and exposed to the scorching sun, Cianjoka’s is now shaded by neat rows of drumstick trees that line her field, helping the earth retain its moisture.
The trees also are considered to have medicinal properties, and are used to provide relief from coughs and colds, and to help purify water.
“This new method of farming is very interesting,” said the 64-year-old mother of nine. “Not only does it protect the crops from withering, but trees which we are being told to grow are also earning us income.”
Getting her husband to hand over control of some of his land for agro-forestry wasn’t easy, Cianjoka remembers.
“It almost cost me my marriage,” she said. “We quarrelled, but he eventually agreed when he found out that other homesteads were allowing women to take charge of projects that were previously handled by men,” she explained.
That was before a new constitution came into force in August 2010 allowing women equal access to land. The reform also ushered in a new system of devolved government which permits communities to take charge of resources within their territory.
Odenda Lumumba, coordinator of Kenya Land Alliance, a non-governmental organisation, says resources such as minerals, forests, water and cultural heritage now will be managed by county administrations.
“In the new system, the government is expected to subsidise community development projects through a revolving fund,” said Lumumba. “There have been repeated calls for those (projects) owned by women to be given priority.”
That possibility looks promising to rural communities, who hope to seal it at the ballot box as Kenya prepares for the first general election under the new constitution later this year.
“Our group is building water pans and installing tanks for water harvesting which we will use for irrigation and domestic use,” said Fidelis Ciamwari of the Muiru Women Self Help Group. “This will help us adapt to bad weather.”
By pooling members’ resources, the group has so far built three community water-harvesting tanks in the village, and is close to completing the first water pan (a pond for collecting surface water runoff) in Tharaka Nithi county, said Ciamwari.
But the silver lining should not obscure the cloud.
According to conservation groups, many of Kenya’s natural resources remain under pressure due to the rising cost of living, high fuel prices and growing youth unemployment.
THREAT TO FORESTS
The Mt. Kenya ecosystem, which spans the lower parts of Tharaka Nithi county, has not escaped widespread illegal timber harvesting and charcoal production, according to Steve Itela, the director of Youth for Conservation, a Kenyan NGO.
According to Itela, the appetite for timber is being fuelled by construction companies in the new nation of South Sudan, and by Kenya’s planned development of a railway through its northwestern region as part of a transport corridor connecting the coastal port of Lamu to the South Sudanese capital, Juba.
High fuel prices have also raised demand for wood and charcoal among poor households. The energy ministry says wood and other biomass, including agricultural waste, now meets 70 percent of domestic energy needs.
The introduction of energy-saving cooking stoves among rural households, however, has raised hopes that communities can save wood and reduce their carbon footprint.
“We are working with women’s groups to enable them (to have) access to these stoves to reduce the impact that unchecked timber harvesting is having on forest ecosystems,” said Domenic Micheni, coordinator of the Chuka Green Initiative group, a Kenyan NGO.
The group has distributed energy-saving stoves to about 30 households so far, but Micheni says more will be made available through devolved funds that subsidise women involved in community environmental protection.
A more important test will be how communities can mix government-led initiatives on renewable energy with emerging private sector investments, as outlined by a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme. According to the report, government policies to open up energy markets to private investment will be the key to unlocking Africa’s massive renewable energy potential.