Standing under a thick green canopy in coastal Kenya’s Shim Hills, Mohamed Mwaramuno squints at his fellow forest ranger’s smartphone.
With about a dozen rangers, he has been using an app that through satellite feeds maps signs of forest fires, illegal logging and people encroaching on water sources, to stem worsening deforestation in Kwale County during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The app has made work easier for us,” said Mwaramuno. “Instead of patrolling the dangerous terrain we just receive these feeds and then we can directly go to the sites that have been disturbed.”
Developed by the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and the University of Leicester in Britain, the system launched in the summer of 2020 and combines satellite feeds with real-time global mapping, explained George Wara, KFS ecosystem conservator in Kwale.
The data is interpreted by a team at the university and relayed to KFS headquarters in Nairobi, which sends the information to patrolling officers at community forest stations.
“The officers then visit the sites to assess the damage and stop anyone they catch cutting down trees or taking water without a license,” said Wara.
The project also employs more than 250 locals who were forced to close their retail businesses during the pandemic, to replant areas that have been cleared.
Patrick Kilelu, a forest protection officer in Kwale, said the system is helping to ease the environmental and economic damage of COVID-19.
“The pandemic had a very negative impact on conservation efforts, on social life and economic well-being,” he said.
“But working with the community we have been able to restore degraded areas with saplings from our nursery.”
COVID-19 STALLS CONSERVATION
Currently, about 7% of Kenya is forested, according to government figures – and environmental groups say more than 5 million trees are cut down every day for firewood, charcoal or other purposes.
The government’s goal of having at least 10% of the country covered in trees by 2022 has taken a hit from the financial downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic, say forest authorities.
Official figures show that Kenya’s unemployment rate has nearly doubled to more than 10% since the start of the pandemic.
Many people have turned to illegal logging and poaching to make money, and COVID-19 restrictions and illness have left the county short of rangers to stop them, Kilelu said.
He pointed to Shimba Hills, a 30,000-hectare (74,000-acre) national reserve on Kenya’s south coast, where he says there has been a jump in encroachment as the remaining officers find it impossible to patrol the whole forest.
Project organisers say the new system allows officers and community rangers to cover an area more efficiently, focusing manpower on vulnerable parts of the forest.
As a result, said Wara at the KFS, there have been only three forest fires in the past two months, compared to about a dozen over the same period last year.
The conservator explained that poachers have a technique of setting fire to grasslands at the edges of forests to encourage fresh pasture to grow, which lures out small game, making them easier to catch.
The fires would often spread out of control and into the forest itself, he said, but with more people patrolling, poachers are mostly staying away.
“Incidences of illegal logging and water abstraction have also dropped dramatically,” he said.
Nasiri Maulidi, chairman of a local forest restoration group in Kwale County, said the project is also helping tackle unemployment in the villages.
“The majority of the youth here are educated, but they have no jobs. This partnership has helped reduce idleness while also engaging the society in greening Kenya,” he said.
Chisenga Ali chats happily with a colleague as they water tree saplings. In May last year, the pandemic forced her to close her clothes business.
“My children are going to school and are well fed thanks to this job. I am also not worried about paying rent,” said Ali, who said her landlord locked her out of her house three times due to late payment since the start of the pandemic.
Officials and conservation experts see the pilot project as a sign of Kenya’s confidence in the role technology can play in battling forest crime and creating job opportunities.
A report by the Pew Research Center published in 2019 showed more than 85% of adults in Kenya reported owning a mobile phone.
If projects like the new reporting system had been in place when the pandemic first struck, they would have ensured the continuity of conservation efforts, even in the face of recession, said Kunga Ngece, an independent conservation consultant.
“Technology in conservation is not an endgame in itself,” Ngece said in a phone interview.
“But it has proved effective and able to create new opportunities in a working environment that would normally be stuck with traditional systems of job creation.”
Ramadhani Mohamed, one of the locals planting trees in Kwale, said the government should do more to tap into the country’s large pool of mobile phone users.
“Kenyan youth are some of the most technologically savvy in Africa. The use of smart apps should not only be used to fight forest crime, but also to prepare the country for future emergencies like COVID-19,” said the 20-year-old.
Chris Kiptoo, principal secretary in the ministry of environment and forestry, said in a phone interview that “the opportunities that the mobile phone revolution has brought with them can also be used to involve communities in forest restoration efforts.”
Mohamed said he had been struggling to find a job since finishing high school, and spent most of his time with his friends in the village, which sometimes led to drug and alcohol abuse.
When he heard in October that the KFS was recruiting locals for a forest restoration project, he enlisted right away.
“I used to rely on my parents for pocket money to buy clothes,” Mohamed said, as he prepared tree seedlings for planting.
“But this programme has turned the tables, because now I am able to contribute to my family’s finances.”
($1 = 109.7500 Kenyan shillings)