Conservation group with green message rooted in the Bible

Miwani residents receive tree seedlings to plant on the banks of River Oroba under a Smejak programme. PHOTO | DAN OBIERO | NMG
Miwani residents receive tree seedlings to plant on the banks of River Oroba under a Smejak programme. PHOTO | DAN OBIERO | NMG 

There is a “Garden of Eden” in Miwani, Kisumu County, overlooking the picturesque Nandi Hills.

With nearly 100 varieties/species of trees, the owners called it so to draw attention to its concerns about the environment and for its bountifulness and similarities to the farm in the biblical tale on Adam and Eve.

The about 10-acre agro-forest has fruit trees, those with medicinal values and species that can be cut for wood, animal feeds and flowers. It sits on a flat land beside the fast flowing waters of Oroba River that emanates from Nandi Hills and lets its waters into Lake Victoria.

It is a model garden meant to help people understand the importance of conservation from the scientific and biblical perspective and how they can directly benefit economically from nature.

Sugarcane has been grown in the area for many decades.

Walking through the grassland within the farm, you will notice egg shells of freshly hatched birds, wild mushrooms, chirping sounds of insects, escaping squirrels and a variety of butterflies crisscrossing each other. Simply put, its nature that well deserves the name ecosystem (variety).

Mrs Margaret Oluoch, its owner who used to work with World Agroforestry in Finance and later with UN World Food Programme in Human Resource, says the farm has trees that give natural pesticides and those that can replace chemical fertilisers that are unfriendly to the environment.

She examines the thick trunks and marvels at the height of dendrocalamus  giganteous, a giant bamboo species recommended for the region by the World Agroforestry Centre (formerly Icraf).

A stretch of 40 kilometres on the Oroba river bank has a variety of bamboo, the strongest and fastest growing woody trees and other creeping plants for soil erosion control.

“Do you notice the difference between this side of the bank and the small stretch that has no bamboo? Clearly, the bank is firm here because bamboo has held the soil together. We left the other side bare for demonstration,” she told Business Daily.

Bamboo rhizomes anchor top-soil along steep slopes and river banks. It also purifies air of greenhouse gases, absorb pollutants including heavy metals and has several economic uses.

Having worked with research organisation, Mrs Oluoch has accessed a lot of research about preventing degradation in the Victoria basin and poverty alleviation of its three million people who rely on the waters, but only 30 per cent of it access clean water.

Despite her professional background, she desired to be part of the conservation effort and sought permission from individual researchers at the centre and others outside to replicate their idea and do it practically.

Together with her husband, Mr Ken Oluoch, she started the project 12 years ago as an experiment on how the eight rivers and several streams that feed Lake Victoria can be conserved upstream, hence end the problems of pollution which contribute to the growth of water hyacinth.

The organisation is called Smejak Nutrition Trees Promotion.

“Literally, I forced my neighbours  to plant bamboo on the shores of River Oroba. Now its banks are firm and the trees ready for harvest. We are currently planning to produce charcoal from bamboo,” Mrs Oluoch said.

Bamboo can replace forest trees for charcoal as it yields more than 7,000 kilocalories per kilogramme which can be compared to half the yield equivalent of petroleum.

It is also economical since one bamboo seedling can generate about 100 ratoons as it is self-regenerating, making it cheaper in the long run.

“From research findings, the lengthy, but surest way to elimination water hyacinth is through conservation of feeder rivers. Mechanised or manual removal of the weed is only a short cut,” said Mrs Oluoch.

Dr Christopher Aura, the Kemfri Assistant Director for Freshwater Systems Research at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KEFRI), Kisumu Centre, said high usage of fertilisers in agriculture and subsequent drainage into the lake causes serious eutrophication, a condition in which the lake has excessive nutrients which causes a dense growth of plant life including the problematic water hyacinth, and death of animals from lack of oxygen.

“With increased fertile agricultural soil, industrial and sewer waste and additionally the decomposing water hyacinth, there will be increased nutrient loading which speeds up the germination of hyacinth plants,” said Dr Aura.

Wetlands that would otherwise filter the pollutants before water flows into the lake have been encroached on and converted into farmlands.

Mrs Oluoch, who is the chairperson of the Oroba River Water Resource Users Association (Wrua), said despite the intense lobbying by state and non-state actors, people were reluctant to plant trees because they don’t see how conservation can address their social issues at a personal level, other than talking about L Victoria.

“That is why we introduced the agriculture component,” she said.

“People narrowly associate the importance of trees with charcoal and firewood, but not as other profitable uses like medicine, animal fodder, pollination agents, shade and beauty,” said Mrs Oluoch.

To capture the people’s attention, she then chose to tailor her course on biblical teachings about environment, right from when God created his first human Adam and Eve and put them in The Garden Of Eden, asked to till the land and take care of it in the book of Genesis. The gift in the garden was plant- bearing seeds.

She draws knowledge from write-ups that link environment to the Bible, among them, Stewardship of God’s World by Dr Roger Sharland who is the Director  of Rural Extension With Africa’s  Poor (REAP).

She has received support from churches and other organisations with like minds, including the Anglican Church of Kenya, the Catholic church, Church of Peace in Africa, Church of Christ in Africa, Evangelical Christ Church of Africa (ECCA) and the Voice of Salvation and Healing and has been recognised as an Africa- Champion for Creation Care and The Gospel.

They talk people out of blaming the government and other bodies for their failure to take up crucial lessons on environmental conservation.

So far, they have a membership of over 1,000 women conservationists across the 13 counties of the lake basin who are keen on taking environment Laureate Wangari Maathai’s gospel of conservation to another level.

Some do specific projects like orchards, bamboo farming, natural medicine or just fodder. But all are conscious about protecting nearby streams and rivers by preventing soil erosion using vegetation like vetiver which can be used as fodder, thatching material and perfume making and lemon grass which is also used to make beverages.

People with small land portions initially wondered how they would sacrifice the 30 metres stretch from the river bank into their land and still manage to sustain their food security.

Reverend Rosalia Oyweka of ECCA is a patron of a group that has also initiated an agro-forest, mostly with medicinal plants in Kajulu, Kisumu County on less than a two acre farm.

“In the less than two acre demonstration farm, we have an energy saving kitchen that uses less firewood, herbs and medicinal trees of all kinds, food and fruits, a tree nursery to help members find seedlings, a fish pond and drought tolerant trees that reverses climate change like pigeon pea,” said Ms Oyweka.

The assortment of trees is fenced off using closely planted species that make up what they call the 7 F Hedge comprising guava, calliandra, pawpaw, passion fruit, mulberry, sesbania and mango trees.  

Other than being a fence, it is also for fuel (straws and branches are dried for wood), fodder, food, fertiliser (from the leaves) and a pharmacy, according to Rev George Matengo who oversees the garden.

Sesbania tree growing over the fish pond has become an orthonological paradise. Birds have built nests all over its branches. Indigenous trees are said to allow the animals to nest, feed and shelter from predators.