Race to save mangrove forest from destruction

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2020 00:00 |

Reuben Mwambingu @reubenmwambingu

On an early morning at around 7am, a team of seven armed Kenya Forest Service rangers arrive at the Tudor Water sports wharf in Mombasa in an official van.

Donning life-saver jackets ready for an operation at sea, the rangers head straight to the quayside where Mwalimu Ramadhan, a KFS Coxswain is waiting for them aboard MV Hifadhi, one of the services’ recently acquired patrol boats.

The team boards the boat and after checking compliance with all the safety precautions, the coxswain of the day roars the boat engine to ignition and soon the team leaves the island and begins to glide towards the mainland side along the calm waters of the scenic Tudor creek.

They are on a mission to salvage the Mangrove forests from ruthless destruction by illicit chang’aa brewers who have established scores of illegal dens that dot the dense section of the forest.

From a distance, fading cloud of smoke can be seen suspended infinitely above the forest, a clear sign of an active human activity going on.

As the team approaches the mainland side of Manyani area near Mishomoroni, the rangers notice a suspicious person paddling a canoe loaded with a bundle of illegally harvested firewood from the adjacent mangrove forest.

Heated and distilled

The patrol team races and catches up with the canoe, handcuffs the suspect before towing the loaded canoe and ties it on one of the mangrove trees.

“These are the people who have been destroying the mangroves. He will serve as an example to the rest,” says KFS Coast Regional Commandant Benjamin Were, the leader of the operation.

The team surges deeper into the heart of the forest where the glaring destruction is taking place.

Here, the rangers come face to face with what appears like a makeshift brewery of the illicit liquor, suspended aloft the sea.

The illicit brewers have erected towering structures to enable a suspended surface above the waters, from where the brewing and distillation process takes place.

They were in the process of distilling thousands of litres of changaa when the rangers barged into the scene. 

Several metallic drums containing liquor processing material were being heated and distilled, while on one side, thousands of litres of ready alcohol were stored in several  200-litre plastic drums.

According to Kevin Otiato Wanjala, the suspect who was arrested during the raid, usually the brewers construct the structures during low tide.

“When there is no water, they use the opportunity to clear a section of the forest where they want to put up a liquor den and then they begin a ground work.

They use mangrove poles to put up pillars and also design a suspended floor where they operate.

They obtain firewood from the mangrove and for today I was hired to supply fire wood to one of the dens,” explains Wanjala.

Extensive destruction

The officers destroyed several liquor dens erected in similar style by pouring the alcohol and setting the hideouts ablaze.

The regional Commandant says a routine aerial and ground surveillance, established the mushrooming human activities in the forest that had caused extensive destruction of the forest cover.

“Last week we surveyed the area with aerial surveillance and we believe if  we allow this trend  to continue then in a few years to come, the flora and fauna will be destroyed completely.

We cannot afford to continue losing the mangrove at the rate we are losing,” he said, adding the raids will continue until they give up.

According to the commandant, the Coastal forests still face pressures and threats of encroachment in some areas leading to forest pollution, illegal logging for fuelwood, and brewing of illicit brew by some members of the neighbouring communities.

Mangrove forests along the Kenya coast cover approximately 60,645ha along the 536 kilometre-long coastline extending from the Kenya-Tanzania border in the south to the Kenya-Somalia border to the north.

The mangrove forests are mainly located in tidal estuaries, creeks and protected bays.

The forests offer a range of benefits and opportunities to both local and national economic development, improved livelihoods and provision of environmental goods and services such as habitat for fish and other wildlife, shoreline protection, and carbon sequestration. 

To regain the county’s mangrove forest, Were said KFS has acquired three state-of-the-art patrol boats for ease deployment of KFS Rangers who provide protection of mangrove forests.

Bosco Juma,  a Mombasa-based Environmentalist  who is also a  Co-founder and director of Big Ship Environmental Conservation and Community Based Empowerment Organisation, says the local community has been the biggest challenge to Mangrove conservation.

He is of the opinion that an alternative resolution by sensitising the community on alternative livelihood can offer a lasting solution to destruction of mangrove.

Worth risking

 According to Juma, the local community is almost addicted to logging of mangrove trees for various reasons which include “quality firewood and strong building poles.”

For instance he  says, brewers pay up to Sh7,000 for a canoe loaded with firewood, something he says locals find well paying and worth risking.

“We have conducted more than seven raids since April but we know raids alone cannot be a solution.

We need to sensitise the community on alternative livelihood like carbon trading project, bee farming and nature-based tourism activities such as eco-tourism.

As Coastal communities we know fishing will not be successful if we destroy Mangrove,” said Juma who has nine-year experience in mangrove ecosystems conservation, community development with more knowledge on the culturally diverse coastal communities of Kenya.

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