By Sam Munia

One of Kenya’s main forests, the Ngong Forest, home to a diverse range of plants and animals, is under threat due to decades of encroachment. The forest cover has significantly reduced, putting the biodiversity of the region in danger. This has resulted in the Kajiado community facing the dual challenge of floods and drought, leading to the loss of livestock and impacting their livelihoods. The loss of livestock has resulted in a rise in poverty and food insecurity, which poses a severe threat to the survival of the people. To address this issue, several initiatives have been launched, but it is crucial to ensure the well-being of these communities and mitigate the far-reaching consequences of this crisis.

We embark on a journey through the breathtaking Ngong forest, located just 23 kilometers southwest of Nairobi. As we bask in the tranquility of our surroundings, we encounter Muriithi Kimathi, a fervent advocate for the forest and resident of Kibiko. He is fighting for the rights of over 100 community members against a private developer who has blatantly encroached on the land. With Kimathi as our guide, we venture through the Kibiko estate, taking in the homes of prominent people and Kibiko Association welfare officials, before making our way to the Kibiko forest to witness the issue at hand. As we listen to the birds chirping and leaves rustling in the wind, we cannot help but feel a sense of urgency to protect this diminishing natural wonder.

PHOTO: Advocate Muriithi Kimathi at Kibiko forest showing a perimeter wall that has been constructed by a private developer. Several indigenous trees have been felled down to pave way. Kibiko forest is part of the shrinking Ngong hill forests.

Upon arriving at the forest, we see the Kenya Institute of Highway Building and Technology-KIHBT perimeter wall, which ends where the private developer has carved out an expansive piece of land. The developer has security guards manning the gate, and the wall disappears into the thick forest. Kimathi is determined to fight against this illegality and seeks the restoration of the indigenous forest through legal means. Papers obtained by Africa Uncensored revealed that a person by the name of Geoffrey Tenai was granted a title deed for a parcel of land with the approval of the forestry department. However, the individual responsible for the land grab not only partitioned the land but also felled trees on the property. The government, on the other hand, asserts that the land is still owned by the state.

PHOTO: The part of Ngong forest (Kibiko forest) that has been carved out by a private developer.

It’s alarming to hear about the illegal felling of trees and the construction of a perimeter at the Kibiko forest wall. According to Muriithi, this activity coincided with Kenya’s President William Ruto leading the first-ever Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi, which focused on addressing the continent’s growing vulnerability to climate change. Urgent action is needed to minimize these issues, especially since climatic disasters are predicted to increase in frequency and intensity. The project emphasized the urgent need for sustainable practices and resilient infrastructure development to be implemented.

According to the certificate of title in our possession, Geoffrey Tenai, PO Box 70699, Nairobi, was granted a 99-year lease period beginning June 1, 1995, for 1.390 hectares of land with title number IR 261382, located in the south-west of Bulbul in Kajiado. The certificate was issued on July 13, 2023, allegedly signed by a Registrar of Titles in Nairobi, not the Kajiado Land Registry. However, the Kibiko community forest association, along with the larger Kibiko represented by Muriithi Kimathi and Karera advocates, are now seeking the cancellation of the title deed, the demolition of the perimeter wall, and restoration of the forest. Efforts by Africa Uncensored to reach Geoffrey Tenai were futile. It’s important to note that Kajiado County commissioner, Jude Wesonga, has warned that land grabbers will face the full force of the law.

PHOTO: A 3 dimensional aerial image of a section of Ngong hills showing settlements and the expansive bare land that surrounds the shrinking forest depicting the impact of deforestation and human settlement on the natural landscape. Source-Google Earth

The Ndungu Land Commission, established by the Kenyan government in 2003, was tasked with investigating the illegal and irregular allocation of public land in the country. The commission, chaired by Paul Ndungu, conducted a detailed review of all laws relating to land as well as official reports on forestlands, national parks, game reserves, wetlands, riparian reserves, and protected areas.

The report by the commission highlighted some startling facts. According to the report, only 1.7% of the original 3% of the country covered by gazetted forests during independence remains. This is due to illegal and irregular excisions, which were often made without any scientific considerations or under the guise of settlement schemes.

As forest encroachment such as Kibiko, which advocate Muriithi Kimathi is fighting, continues to threaten natural habitats and biodiversity, it becomes increasingly important to prioritize sustainability and conservation efforts. Kenya boasts of a rich biodiversity and protected areas with over 1847 known species of amphibians, birds, mammals, and reptiles, according to the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Of these, 4.0% are endemic, which means they exist in no other country, and 3.8% are threatened. Furthermore, Kenya’s forests contain 476 million metric tonnes of carbon in living forest biomass. The country is also home to at least 6506 species of vascular plants, of which 4.1% are endemic.

Ngong Hills Forest not only supports unique biodiversity but is also a source of livelihood for the surrounding communities. The forest is home to the main headwaters of the Ngong, Athi, and Kiserian rivers. The hills are revered by the Maasai people, who know them as ‘Oldoinyio-Oloolaiser, which means ‘the mountain of the Laiser’, who were one of the mightiest clans of the Maasai, from which the famous ‘laibon’, Olonana (Lenana), descended. The hills hold great cultural significance to the Maasai people, as they are believed to be the ancestral home of their powerful clan leader, Olonana.

As Murithi Kimathi pursues justice for Ngong Forest in court, it’s heartbreaking to hear about the losses that Solomon Kenoya has faced due to the persistent drought in Kajiado. Despite the recent heavy rains that have brought some relief to the area, it came too late for his livestock and crops. It’s devastating to learn that he lost 106 cattle, and now has only four cows left. Looking at the bones of his former wealth scattered around his compound, one can only imagine the pain he must be feeling.

Kenoya is a devoted father of four, but he faces immense difficulty in providing for his family due to the harsh weather conditions caused by climate change. Despite the challenges, he remains determined to support his family and improve their livelihood. Recently, he made a difficult decision to burn the cattle carcasses that were causing him mental stress, in order to find other ways to earn money. Kenoya’s story is just one example of the devastating impact of climate change on families and communities. “We must take action to combat climate change, not only for the sake of our planet, but also for the well-being of individuals like Kenoya and his family.” Says Jane Macharia, a Research Scientist at the National Museums of Kenya.

PHOTO: The surviving cattle belonging to Solomon Kenoya are seen taking water at a water pan in Kajiado after the short rains. Unfortunately, many others did not make it through the drought season.

Kenoya blames the loss of his cattle on the shrinking of the grazing lands and the lack of order in Maasai society. In the past, there were designated areas for grazing during droughts, controlled by the elders. But now, with increased population and human settlement, the Maasai graze everywhere, leading to overgrazing and the destruction of the land. Even the forests that used to provide refuge during droughts are no longer safe, as settlements encroach on them with impunity.

PHOTO: Dried crater lake at the Ngong hills with visible cracks indicating the severity of the drought in Kajiado.

The Ngong Hill forest was gazetted as a forest reserve in 1985, but the ecosystem status has continued to deteriorate, affecting livestock keepers such as Kenoya. Despite this, measures have been put in place for conservation and sustainable management due to the importance of the area. The Kenya Forests Services has attempted to rectify this trend, but their efforts have not been very successful. In each case, the effort was either abandoned altogether or done on a limited basis due to various reasons.

Data Source: Ndung’u land commission report.
GRAPH: Data visualization showing the top deforestation trends in Kenya.

The Ndung’u report revealed that there has been a systematic and widespread abuse of public trust by public officials. Many officials failed to see anything morally wrong with their illegal allocation of land. The commission’s investigation found that many centers of power were responsible for the illegal allocation of land, but the lead in public plunder had consistently been given from the top. The commission’s report painted a bleak picture of Kenya, concluding that the country had fallen into a state of moral decadence.

As per the legal provisions of the previous dispensation in Kenya, the exclusive authority to allot government lands was vested in the President; however, the Commissioner of Lands could have been granted restricted authority by the President. Furthermore, even the President was unable to use his authority without taking the public interest into account, and not even the president had the power to distribute alienated government lands that have been set aside for a public purpose like forests, play areas, or nature conservation.

PHOTO: Satellite image showing Kibiko forest (part of the Ngong forests) and the impact of human settlements around it. A private developer has illegally secured himself about 4 acres from the shrinking gazetted public forest. Source-Google Earth

According to the Commission, over the years, the President(s) and several Commissioners of Lands and their deputies had egregiously misused the authorities vested in them.The findings of the investigation demonstrated that several Commissioners of Lands had directly granted government land without receiving permission from the President. Many records at the Ministry of Lands and Settlements have been purposefully destroyed, and land has frequently been distributed using forged letters and paperwork. The majority of unlawful public land allocations, according to the Commission, occurred prior to or shortly after the multiparty general elections in 1992, 1997, and 2002. This commission concluded that public property was distributed “as political reward or patronage.” It also disclosed that “unbridled plunder” of public funds had occurred.

PHOTO: Wind power project station on top of theNgong hills is one of the major projects made by the government in the Ngong forest Conservation area.

According to the new constitution of Kenya, public land, which includes government forests, government game reserves, water catchment areas, national parks, government animal sanctuaries, and specially protected areas, may not be disposed of or used unless an Act of Parliament specifies the nature and terms of that disposal or use.

Ministry of Lands Acting Chief Registrar David Nyandoro states that in order to maintain sanity in land transactions, the government is quickly switching from manual records to the digital platform “Ardhi Sasa.” The digital platform would expedite the procedure and lower the number of corrupt and fraudulent cases. “Everyone who logs in to complete a transaction will leave a trail for us to follow. In order to preserve the integrity of the transactions and stop unauthorized access, we also have digital protections in place,” explains Nyandoro. “In addition, we regularly update our security measures to stay ahead of potential threats.”

The impact of deforestation on the environment is significant and far-reaching. Solomon Kenoya represents thousands of pastoralist communities in Kajiado who lost their only wealth during the 2023 drought season. According to the National Drought Management Authority, high temperatures and failed rains led to the loss of 2.6 million livestock in Kenya’s 22 arid and semi-arid counties including Kajiado. Loss of trees and other vegetation can lead to desertification, climate change, fewer crops, soil erosion, increased greenhouse gases, flooding, and many other problems. According to biodiversity researcher Jane Macharia who heads the Wetlands section at the National Museums of Kenya, the Ngong Hills Forest in Kajiado County has been deforested due to logging and settlements.

PHOTO: This is an Aerial view of Kajiado North taken from the Ngong hills, showing the vast stretch of drying earth. The impact of drought in the region is visible at this angle.

Unfortunately, many people do not understand that excessive exploitation of these resources makes it difficult to revive the forest. Despite this, Kenya Forest head Philip Kosgey says the government has deployed more officers to protect important areas and is conducting public participation to sensitize communities living around the forests on the importance of conservation of biodiversity. According to a University of Nairobi journal, the use of remote sensing technology can help in monitoring the forest ecosystem and provide timely, up-to-date, and cost-effective information to forest protection agencies.

It’s not just the Ngong forest that is suffering; the water from its important rivers is also becoming increasingly polluted. The Ngong River flows through an area with a high population growth rate and many informal settlements, including Kibera and Mukuru slums. These settlements lack proper sanitation facilities and waste management systems. Unfortunately, this has led to an increase in water pollution in the river. Additionally, the river passes through Kenya’s capital city and industrial hub, making it vulnerable to further pollution due to its use as an urban waste conduit for all the areas it traverses. The river is a crucial source of water for downstream communities living in the counties of Kitui, Makueni, and Kilifi. Jane Macharia emphasizes the need for immediate action to protect this vital resource and ensure that it continues to provide clean water to the communities that depend on it.

PHOTO: A section of Ngong-Magadi road in Kajiado County that has been destroyed by flash floods after heavy rains.

With the arrival of the rainy season,it’s not business as usual in Kajiado. The changing climate patterns mean that communities can no longer take the availability of water for granted. As the saying goes, scarcity is the mother of invention, and it’s exciting to see how people such as Solomon Kenoya are adapting to the new conditions. New technologies or techniques are emerging to help make the most of the rainfall while also addressing any potential challenges that may arise. According to research scientist Jane Macharia, this is an opportunity for innovation and creativity, and it will be interesting to see what solutions emerge to mitigate climate change impacts.

At the slopes of Ngong hills, Regina Njoki Ngata, a 58-year-old woman and mother of five, is among tens of Kajiado residents, environmental experts, government and religious leaders who have gathered at Ngong town to address urgent challenges of climate change by significantly increasing trees cover, nutritional issues, and provide a sustainable source of income for households. The tree planting exercise dubbed ‘Trees for Food’ program aims to mitigate the effects of climate change in an ecosystem that has experienced uncontrolled human activities for decades.

Regina was born in ‘Gichagi’ an informal settlement in Kajiado North during Kenya’s emergency period in 1952. She has experienced the once-adored cultural forest of the Maasai get reduced to a show of its former self. She points at the Ngong Hills forest where they used to fetch firewood. “It was a thick green forest, access was limited. People and livestock have destroyed this forest, and the green cover has diminished,” says Regina. “In the 60s, you couldn’t see the peak; it was covered by the clouds. Rivers were flowing freely from this hill toward different directions, but now you can see it’s clear. You can even see people walking up there, others are grazing,” adds Regina.

PHOTO: Regina Njoki, a resident of Ngong, taking care of her newly planted trees through mulching.

Planting trees is a crucial step in capturing and storing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, which makes them natural carbon capture and storage machines. This is why reforestation and afforestation are often considered as important solutions to the climate crisis. The Government of Kenya, led by President William Ruto, has initiated a plan to plant 15 billion trees by 2032. The move aims to reduce greenhouse emissions, stop and reverse deforestation, and restore 5.1 million hectares of deforested and degraded landscapes through the African Landscape Restoration Initiative, which was launched on December 22, 2022.

According to a recent study, an international research team led by Jean-Francois Bastin of ETH-Zurich in Switzerland, estimated that Earth’s ecosystems could support an additional 900 million hectares (2.2 billion acres) of forests, which is 25 percent more forested area than we currently have. The research team used direct measurements of forest cover from around the world to create a model for estimating Earth’s forest restoration potential.

The ‘Trees for Food’ initiative aims to address the urgent challenges of climate change  by significantly increasing the tree cover while empowering community groups, especially women-led such as Regina Njoki, to become active stewards of their environment. The project  coordinator, Ronald Kivi, says the project aims to combat trees’ food security through planting trees, conserving the environment, and economic viability. They did a successful pilot program with 20,000 seedlings in 2021 in the areas affected by climate change. Kajiado, being a vast area prone to extreme droughts and flooding that leads to loss of lives and livelihoods, had a suitable environment for these fruit trees. “We have 200,000 fruit trees today that include the Hass Avocado, Mango, Orange, Lemon, and Bananas. In about 3 to 5 years, the communities will be able to export the Avocados to 2 or 3 ready international markets such as China,” says Kivi.

According to Kivi, the program involves climate change experts, communities affected by climate change, religion, ministry of interior and coordination. It is a significant step towards Kenya’s goal to combat the negative effects of climate change, as outlined in its revised Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris agreement shared with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2020. The country has promised to significantly reduce carbon emissions, address deforestation, and other destructive practices within the next decade. In addition, the program will improve food security and promote economic empowerment for Kenyans, starting with local communities.

PHOTO: A philanthropist from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Paul Acher (In white shirt) joins conservationists, administrators and Kajiado residents for the trees to fruits exercise in Ngong.

The conservation group has adopted two acres at the Ngong forests where trees are being planted in an effort to complement the government agenda of planting 15 billion trees in 10 years. According to research Scientist Jane Macharia attached to the National Museums of Kenya, the Ngong ecosystem, which supports unique biodiversity and livelihoods for the surrounding communities, is under threat and in dire need of saving.

While the efforts to mitigate climate change continue to influence communities into adopting new ways of life, there seem to be more hurdles. According to Wanyiri Kihoro, a former lawmaker, property valuer, and lawyer from Kenya who served as the legal counsel for the Ndungu Land Commission, the Commission, which sought to combat government corruption, was a wise concept. On the other hand, Kenyan society can never truly advance or evolve if it keeps rewarding corruption with power. “Corruption must be punished and culprits held accountable for their actions. Corruption has been rewarded in the past; it’s even being rewarded now. We might not see the changes that we wanted.” Says Wanyiri Kihoro. This statement suggests that the efforts of Regina Njoki and Ronald Kivi in planting trees could be rendered ineffective and that the work of advocate Muriithi Kimathi in protecting forests has been undermined. This could potentially worsen the impact of climate change on individuals such as Solomon Kenoya, who may suffer the consequences.

PHOTO: Jackson Mwangi, a community conservationist based in Kajiado at Kerarapon, captured tasting fresh water from the source of Ngong river inside the Ngong forest conservation area.

President William Ruto’s launch of the Nairobi River Commission, mandated to provide strategic direction, oversight, and coordination of rehabilitation efforts is a  much-needed initiative to address the massive pollution of the once-pristine source of water. By improving the city’s blue-green infrastructure, the government aims to restore the natural beauty of the river, and provide the people of Nairobi with a cleaner and healthier environment.

The Head of State also reaffirmed the government’s commitment to reclaiming and conserving water catchment areas across the country. In his statement, he emphasized that the government is actively working towards rehabilitating and conserving degraded landscapes. The efforts being made to reclaim these areas are critical to ensure that future generations can continue to benefit from essential resources such as water. With this commitment, we can hope to see a significant positive impact on the environment and the well-being of the community.

As governments and organizations pledge to undertake large-scale tree planting schemes to tackle climate change and restore biodiversity, there is a growing realization that using a variety of native species, engaging local populations to look after the trees in the long term, and protecting and restoring existing forests are crucial for the success of such projects. “To create healthy ecosystems and effectively capture carbon, reforestation projects must do more than simply put trees into the soil,” explains Professor Mbaabu Mathiu, a former lecturer in Environmental Physiology, Ethno-medicine and an Environmental Veterinarian at the University of Nairobi.

PHOTO: Paul Tobiko, a resident of Kajiado County showcases the land that he has transformed from a bare piece of land to a lush green forest consisting of a variety of trees. His efforts are a testament to the power of individual action in combating climate change and preserving the environment for future generations.

According to Government Spokesperson Isaac Mwaura, Kenyans planted over 150 million trees in one day across the country during the National Tree Growing Day dubbed the ‘green holiday’ during the short rains period. However, Mwaura noted that only slightly over 10 million trees were recorded on the ‘Jaza Miti’ mobile application, which helps keep track of the number of trees grown and guide users on the tree species to grow in their respective areas.

“Until you dig a hole, plant a tree, water it and make it survive, you haven’t done a thing.” – This powerful quote was said by Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai, emphasizing the importance of taking action instead of just talking about it. “Committing to caring for trees after planting can end the cycle of drought and flooding,” concludes Jane Macharia, the head of Wetlands-Science Research at the National Museums of Kenya. “Kenyans must act now for a better future. Let’s work together for change.”

This story has been produced in partnership with InfoNile and with funding from JRS Biodiversity Foundation and IHE Delft’s Water and Development Partnership Programme. It’s a collaborative effort between journalist(s) and scientist(s), specifically Samuel Munia and Jane Macharia.  

Jane W. Macharia is a Research Scientist at the National Museums of Kenya, Centre for Biodiversity. She’s currently the Head, Wetlands Marine Section.

Water Journalists Africa (WJA) is the largest network of journalists reporting on water in the African continent. It brings together some 700 journalists from 50 African countries. It was established in...