“Women need to carve a path.”
Around Mount Kenya, Milka Musyoki is weaving a female legacy into forest conservation.
I grew up in Nairobi reading about the forest and its power, but I never fully appreciated it until one of my relatives, who works in natural conservation, inspired me to want to work in landscapes. I was also inspired by Wangari Maathai. She was a woman who defended what she believed in and left a legacy. Conservation work is still mostly done by men, so women need to carve a path.
Studying natural resource management at Egerton university, I found environmental issues very interesting and often thought about the impact I could have. In 2014, I started working for Nature Kenya, and am now a Project Officer. Since then, I have really grown as a conservationist and can thank Nature Kenya for shaping me into the person I am today in my conservation journey.
My first main job was working with women in the Tana Delta to help build nature-based enterprises to improve livelihoods. Women were often not considered, so this gave me the chance to make a difference and also the opportunity to work in a remote area for the first time; so it was a real eye-opener for me. I learned to engage and work with the community, seeing first-hand how to build consensus, and how to engage a network of stakeholders at county, local, national and international levels.
In many landscapes in Kenya, women are the champions. Even older women get involved in conservation. We need to engage them further.
As part of my role, I have been trained in tree-planting and natural habitat monitoring, so I’m confident I can go to any area and assess the immediate threats, the state of the habitat, the rivers and rain. I can also identify birds and understand them as indicators of the health of ecosystems. And, I’m able to train the community in these skills and help them understand how they can help preserve their surrounding habitat.
My days are incredibly varied and interesting. I work in three counties – Embu, Meru and Tharaka Nithi – and will often visit all three in a typical week. I might start the week in Meru, training the community in beekeeping, for example, including hive monitoring and management, bee products harvesting, packaging and marketing. Later in the week, I might go on a site visit in Embu, visiting the various restoration areas and recording what I see on a specially designed app. I’ll check for threats, look at the survival count for the seedlings, walk around and see how the saplings are doing, and then write a report that forms the basis of the next plan. Various other stakeholders also come into play throughout the days, such as local governments.
Our restoration activities change according to the seasons. The planting season coincides with the rains, which are different depending on the area: In Meru, it’s October to December, and in Embu, it’s March to May. When we are not planting, we focus on community capacity building and habitat monitoring.
Two aspects of my work in particular give me huge satisfaction and are closely linked and cut across all the projects we implement. The first, which I love, is interaction with the community, including capacity building, support for their activities and conflict resolution. Forest restoration and conservation come as a close second, and they are dependant on the first; you need to build the capacity of the community to be able to carry out the restoration. The community becomes your watch-guard.
The focus and method of our work depend on the area, the tree species therein and the climate. In Mt Kenya, one of the main aims is water catchment restoration. We want to build the capacity of the water providers and support them in nature-based enterprises, so we are aiming to connect the water buyers and the water users with community groups that are carrying out the conservation.
Stakeholder relationships are key. We have strong links with the Kenya Forest Service and with the county governments that oversee forests and provide valuable technical input. And we need to maintain a good working relationship with the policymakers.
One of the biggest challenges we face is variation in rainfall patterns. Two to three weeks of rain are needed for the saplings to survive, and many of them can be lost if the rains don’t come. Grazers are also a threat and can sometimes eat the saplings, but communities have come up with ways to put up protective fencing against this. We have also identified tree species that are unpalatable to the local wildlife so are less likely to be eaten.
Climate change is affecting the rainfall with many areas already much drier than they used to be. This affects the tree species that we can plant and the way we plant. For example, the local communities used to collect ‘wildings’ from the forest to cultivate, but there are no longer enough to be found. One glimpse of hope is that we are working on species diversification to try to find those that are more drought resistant and can cope better with climate change.
One of the most satisfying parts of my work is seeing how all our efforts pay off and the difference we can make in restoring an area of forest. In one particular area, the forest has been transformed over a few years from a landscape choked by a very fast-growing plant called Lantana camara, to a vibrant, thriving forest, thanks to the efforts of the community working together to clear the Lantana, manage the land and take care of the newly planted tree saplings. Local people talk about how beautiful the area is now and how even the weather has changed. They feel a strong connection with the forest having been part of the restoration effort and having made a real difference.
One of the most important lessons I have learned through my work is that this is a collective effort – everyone from young to old needs to play a part. If the community works in cohesion, with different stakeholders all working toward a common goal to conserve, restore and protect the forest and the ecosystem for future generations, we can achieve so much more.
More and more women are getting involved in conservation and are often direct beneficiaries of the projects. Women are often at the center of their communities and have enormous influence. The more women we can involve, the more we can achieve – for example, we can help them use new technologies such as biogas for energy rather than the more traditional collection of firewood. I can see the small milestones we make and the positive impact on the lives of the community, and this motivates me in my work every day. We may think we do little, but when we measure the impact and put some numbers to it, we can see that we have achieved a lot.
There are challenges working as a woman in conservation, such as balancing work and field trips with raising a family. But it is hugely rewarding. And at the heart of what I do every day is the scenic beauty of the landscape. I love being in the forest. I like the peace and ambiance I find there that I don’t find anywhere else. I believe that if we work together, we can protect these precious landscapes for future generations.