By Peyton Fleming
Like her Samburu ancestors going back to the 15th century, Pamela Lonolngenje’s family has been literally on the move for centuries. One of a half-dozen semi-nomadic tribes in the vast drylands of northern Kenya, she and her family spent years shifting locations to find water and grazing land for their herds of goats and cattle, their primary source of income.
Yet land conflicts, deadly cattle disputes with neighboring tribes and drier, hotter conditions due to climate change forced her family eight years ago to sell their livestock and move into the nearby Kirisia forest, a critical ecosystem for local populations during prolonged droughts. Their only income was collecting and burning firewood to make charcoal – a back-crushing task that earned them about $9 a week. It was also unsustainable due to government crackdowns on illegal logging in the national forest.
Today, Lonolngenje is protecting the trees she once cut down. She is among 550 Samburu women that the government has tasked to protect a major area of the forest, part of a unique climate adaptation project that is helping Samburu women earn money and manage a vital natural resource as climate change disrupts the environment around them.
“I’m really happy to be out of the forest. I’m also happy that women are taking part in decision-making for the forest,” says the 30-year-old mother of four, who lives just outside the forest and runs a small food kiosk with two other Samburu women. She still collects firewood in the forest twice a week, but she only uses wood from fallen trees. “I no longer cut trees down for firewood.”
Lonolngenje’s newfound responsibilities are part of a broad shift of changing gender roles in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. As traditional livelihoods for men, such as small-scale farming and livestock herding, have eroded, women have been forced to earn money for the first time. In some cases, their opportunity is being aided by a growing willingness of governments to let local populations manage their natural resources – a strategy borne out by studies showing they are better custodians.
“Samburu women are on the frontlines of climate change. They, along with their children, often struggle the most when climate change and other factors are making their traditional lifestyle ever more challenging,” said Heather McGray, director of the Climate Justice Resilience Fund, which is backing the effort in northern Kenya. “That’s why this project is really exciting as a climate adaptation model. It’s putting power in their hands.”
Northern Kenya – and the 310,000 Samburu people who live there – are experiencing many of the most damaging impacts of climate change. The parched, sandy landscape that borders South Sudan and Ethiopia once provided reliable rainfall during the March-to-June rain seasons. Now, the rain seasons are shorter and precipitation patterns more unpredictable, veering between extended droughts and intense rains that can cause devastating floods.
The hotter, drier conditions, combined with intense population and land pressures in this fast-growing country, are taking a toll on northern Kenya’s montane forests – called “water towers” because of their ability to store water during rainy seasons and release it slowly during dry periods. The Kirisia forest, which covers an area the size of New York City, lost 21 percent of its forest cover from 1973 to 2015, according to a University of Nairobi study that cited charcoal burning, illegal logging and livestock foraging as key factors.
Cattle populations in Kenya’s semi-arid regions are also declining due to rising temperatures and lost grazing land. Over the past 30 years, their numbers have fallen by 26 percent as mercury readings in northern Kenya have routinely exceeded 30 °C, the maximum temperatures cattle can tolerate, according to a 2018 study.
Lonolngenje doesn’t need statistics to know that the Samburu’s traditional norms needed changing. And not just in terms of semi-nomadic herding, but also in terms of gender roles.
With the tradition of Samburu men spending their days grazing herds literally drying up, Lonolngenje began looking for her own opportunities to make money. She also wanted a larger role in decision-making. “Before, it was only men who made decisions,” she said.
Her breakthrough came in 2019. Several months after she and dozens of other Samburu families were evicted from the forest by the government, Lonolngenje was selected to participate in a women’s empowerment program run by a local nonprofit group, the BOMA Project.
She and two other Samburu women received training on running a small business, including record keeping, marketing and long-term planning for savings and spending. With a small business grant, they opened a small food kiosk in a town just outside the forest. “We were able to make $530 in profit within a few months,” she said.
Her second breakthrough came a year later when the county government was looking for local community groups who could manage critical local ecosystems in northern Kenya that were threatened by climate change. They picked an association of Samburu women, including Lonolngenje, to protect the Samburu County section of the Kirisia forest. The project is being overseen by BOMA, under a $206,000 grant from the Climate Justice Resilience Fund.
The forest is being managed by a Community Forest Association (CFA) that has more than 550 Samburu women as members. The women can use the forest but under strict protocols outlined in a forest management plan that they helped develop. Among the most sacred rules: the women can only enter and use the forest in groups; cutting down trees and charcoal burning are strictly forbidden. They’re also starting tree nurseries and forest-friendly activities such as beekeeping.
The more decentralized management approach – hundreds of local eyes and ears instead of a handful of government rangers — has been successful so far.
“Before there was a lot of smoke because so many people were making charcoal,” Lonolngenje recalled. “Now nobody is burning charcoal because so many people in the community are watching.”
Douglas Leboyare, a Samburu elder who chairs the CFA, is also encouraged, especially as hundreds more Samburu women are joining the forest association, which is expected to hit 2,000 members by the end of the year.
“The government was not well positioned to protect the forest because they only had five rangers. It’s made a big difference having the community in charge,” said Leboyare, who suffered devastating cattle losses during an extended drought in 2017.
The Samburu-led effort is part of a global shift that has more national governments shifting natural resource management responsibilities to local governments and community groups – a trend backed by Africa-focused research showing that local community groups are better caretakers of local ecological resources.
Kenya’s government has been in the forefront of many of these efforts. Under the new Constitution, the government formally recognizes community resource plans and the rights of local user groups to protect forests, grazing lands and water resources. The government also has a strong climate adaptation agenda, as evidenced by its commitment in January, along with 50 other countries, to protect at least 30 percent of its lands and oceans by 2030.
All of these factors have played a role in the climate adaptation project that BOMA and the Samburu women are pursuing.
“Kenya is a good space for this (project) right now,” said CJRF’s Heather McGray, who is hopeful it can be replicated elsewhere. “If BOMA and Samburu County can show progress, it could enable other NGOs to pursue similar climate adaptation models in other countries.”
For Lonolngenje, who is now running a business and sustainably using the forest to collect firewood from the ground, her life is rich with promise. She is making enough money to pay for her children’s school fees. She and her business partners have also started a second business buying and selling goats and sheep.
Peyton Fleming is a freelance journalist who has written extensively about climate and other sustainable development issues in Africa.