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The shamba system: an indigenous woman fights for the rights of her community

Blog | Thu, 10 Sep, 2020 · 7 min read
Purity Chelimo plants maize and puts trees in between

“Local communities have to be involved in decisions about forests that affect their livelihoods,” says Tecla Chumba, a Kenyan woman from the Lembus tribe and mother of four. She set up a community forest association and asked the Kenya Forest Service to give each member half an acre of land and tree seedlings that they could plant, alongside their own crops. Members would then return these plots after the trees have grown for three years.

This is called the “shamba system” or “plantations establishment for livelihood improvement scheme.” It is a way to afforest land where exotic trees have been cut for timber. The community benefits from being able to plant crops such as potatoes, tomatoes, beans, peas, maize and even grass for cow fodder in exchange for planting tree seedlings and taking care of the growing trees for three years. This agroforestry approach has set the expectation for local farmers to use indigenous traditional methods to kill insects and no insecticides, but rather cow dung and ashes. In return, the Kenya Forest Service gets a piece of land that has been reforested.

Jointly working with the Kenya Forest Service, the community forest association has set up a management plan with 17 user rights for the members of the community forest association. Members also have access to the forest for firewood, beekeeping, collecting herbs and medicines, wild mushrooms and other vegetables and forest fruits, water, fodder for their cattle, humus for nurturing their seedlings at home, among other things. Since 2010, this shamba system has been working well. 

Tecla Shumba proudly showing off her potatoes (UN-REDD Programme)

But when the Kenya Forest Service decided to advertise to lease the land to a company interested in planting and harvesting trees, denying the community forest association the right to do shamba, Chumba (together with the National Alliance of Community Forests Associations Kenya) took the Kenya Forest Service to court. Because the community forest associations had a signed management agreement with the Kenya Forest Service, National Alliance of Community Forests Associations Kenya won the case. “The Kenyan forest management and conservation act 2016 says that Kenya Forest Service has to respect public participation,” explained Chumba.

This public participation has been laid out in the various legislations in Kenya including the Constitution 2010, the Forest Management and Conservation Act 2016 and the public participation and engagement in forest management rules 2009. However, until 2015, the rules on stakeholder participation including indigenous peoples were not very clear as to how they can participate in decision-making in the forestry sector. 

“Stakeholder engagement guidelines and free prior and informed consent rules were developed with support from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry as part of UN-REDD Programme’s targeted support to Kenya through the United Nations Development Programme,” says Judy Ndichu, Technical Coordinator for the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility in Kenya. “It gives the opportunity for communities to participate in the decision-making process on projects regarding the forests their livelihoods depend on.”

After they won the case in 2013, Chumba continued the shamba system and she says it is working very well. It exists all over Kenya, but some parts have trouble when cattle invade their shambas, though this is getting better. “When cows invade your plot, you can now call the forest guard who will seize the cows,” she says. “Then the owner will show up to get them back and will pay a fine for the damage his cattle caused.”

She appreciates that the community forest associations are part of the REDD+ movement as she believes it is the right way forward: “Indigenous trees are important. They bring the water back, they attract bees and they fight against siltation in the water catchment areas. So we are happy to plant them and look after them, especially if we can get carbon credits in return.”

“The UN-REDD Programme has been a pioneer of innovative policies that value and protect forests and their social and ecosystem services. Commitments to human rights-based approaches, social inclusion and stakeholder engagement are vital to its mandate and work,” says Musonda Mumba, Chief of Terrestrial Ecosystems Unit and Chair of the core team preparing the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration at the UN Environment Programme.