Meru Central District, with a population of about 0.5 million and a total area of 3,000 km2 (1,600 km2 of arable land, 1,000 km2 of gazetted forest, and 400 km2 that belong to Mount Kenya National Park) is 1 of 6 districts surrounding Mount Kenya. Agricultural production is very high in this mountainous area.
The National Soil and Water Conservation Program (NSWCP) lasted from 1974 to 2000. In the last 10 years of the program a catchment approach was emphasized. Efforts and resources were concentrated in a catchment for 1 year. Problems and opportunities were identified with land users in a participatory manner, and further development activities were planned. The agricultural extension service was the main local project partner; it took a leading role in disseminating technology and improving land husbandry practices. A baseline study found that both human activities and changing environmental conditions contributed to environmental degradation in Meru District. Concerted project interventions were undertaken to protect and sustain the mountain environment.
High population pressure, leading to increased demand for wood;
Over-exploitation of indigenous trees for commercial purposes;
Cutting of indigenous trees (ie, mugumo, mukundukundu and mukuu) with protective functions;
Accelerated erosion caused by overgrazing;
Expansion of cultivation in marginal areas (steep slopes, woodlands, etc);
Severe erosion on fields caused by drained road runoff;
Poor land husbandry practices (carrying capacity not properly assessed and land use not planned);
Forest fires due to harvesting of honey;
Air, soil and water pollution due to waste dumped in forests.
Greater incidence of drought, drying up some streams and springs;
Floods in flat regions and severe soil erosion on slopes due to 1997/1998 El-Niño rainfall;
Loss of vegetation cover and accelerated erosion due to diseases and pests;
Elephants straying onto farmland (especially near parks and reserves);
More frequent whirlwinds on barren ground, leading to accelerated soil erosion.
Policy shift towards integrated management of water resources and formation of water users' associations;
Community education in soil and water management, water harvesting, and agroforestry by agricultural extension;
Community education on the importance of indigenous tree species (timber, medicine, biodiversity) and reforestation of areas where trees were cut;
Guarding of forests by the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Forest Department;
Modifications in land husbandry practices (terracing, contour plowing, runoff management, conservation agriculture);
Building of solar electric fences along forest boundaries to prevent elephants from destroying crops on adjacent farms.
The local communities took on responsibility for their own development. There were great achievements in conservation activities, water harvesting, water management structures, and land husbandry practices. River banks and water sources are now better protected. In addition, several tree nurseries were established and the number of trees (especially Grevillea robusta) on farms increased.
Some farmers expected incentives, while others were not willing to implement recommended measures. Thus on steep slopes, runoff from these farmers' fields devastated fields downslope. In some cases catchment committees became ineffective shortly after termination of the program. The agricultural extension service increased its efforts, but collaboration with other local government authorities was often insufficient, for example when it came to planning better road design or discussing how to improve local infrastructure.
Conclusions and recommendations
Land users in the Meru Central District exploit their environment to earn a livelihood. This is evidenced by the success of SWC efforts described above; Grevillea robusta agroforestry was very important. The impact of drought and increasing water scarcity has drawn local and national attention: there are efforts at both levels to conserve and preserve mountain environments. While tree harvesting was traditionally allowed only for old trees that had fallen due to age, timber merchants and some dishonest officers in the provincial administration have colluded to allow living trees to be cut.
The following steps are recommended to address environmental challenges in the District:
Assess the current demand for forest products;
Assess farmers' preferences in using various tree species for timber, medicine, fodder and fruit;
Establish a demonstration site where vanishing indigenous tree species are planted to exemplify reduced mountain forest encroachment and high-value tree species.