Environmental consequences from depletion of virgin forests on Mfangano Island in Kenya is seldom considered by islanders, and reforestation of Mfangano presented a welcome challenge to graduate student, Emily Lowery.
There is a visible and audible aliveness to Mfangano Island, Kenya, located on the east side of Lake Victoria. The island is rapidly changing with a growing population, greater access to information and increasing economic insecurity.
Although the island is part of Kenya, it is left off many of the country’s maps, as if it didn’t exist at all. Wealth was promised when the international fishing industries came to Lake Victoria, but in fact, never actually reached Mfangano or the other fishing villages around the lake. As the communities rely on the lake to feed their families, the fish that once plentifully nourished them are becoming more and more rare. The ecological degradation of Lake Victoria has created an ecosystem that is no longer regenerative. Consequently, those living around the lake have been forced to find other ways to feed and support themselves, and thus, they have turned to farming to provide the food and income, which they need to survive. The natural environment of the island is in anguish, how could it not be with these kind of overwhelming challenges facing its people? The deforestation occurring on Mfangano is not a result of educational ignorance to the consequence of deforestation; the community understands the importance of the forests, but they also need food to eat and earn money.
The survival responses that have resulted in current agricultural practices are beginning to exhaust the limited food and fuel resources available to the island, causing deforestation, poor crop yield, poor nutrition and threatening the livelihoods and health of a people already impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. With nearly forty percent of the island’s population infected with the virus, the community has one of the highest infection percentages in the world.
Despite these tremendous obstacles, there are people within the community who see the opportunity to overcome these challenges and give their story a new trajectory by working together, with other locals and foreigners, to improve and restore the health of the island. As cities and populations continue to grow, humans will continue to encroach upon the ecosystems around them and strain the natural resources provided by those ecosystems. We have the ability to manifest innovations of restoration and regeneration. We are capable of slowing the pace of degradation while meeting human needs and bringing into focus the existence of communities, cultures and ecosystems outside our purview.
Reforestation of Mfangano: Opportunity Presented
When the chance to work on a reforestation project in partnership with Organic Health Response (OHR) on Mfangano Island presented itself, it was a clear fit. I accepted the position with OHR in hopes that I might offer potentials for reforestation that would provide a more beneficial integration of human support and ecological regeneration. I couldn’t predict the long-range outcome, but my intention was to propose a variety of ways in which plant growth, vegetative function, human value and human consumption can synchronize in a way that can be sustained – allowing for the restoration of some of the natural systems of the island, while meeting and nourishing the need for economic security, human health and cultural well-being.
As a graduate student earning a Masters Degree in landscape architecture, I was required to select a “capstone project” that would ultimately serve as a thesis for my degree. Serving the OHR project became the basis for my capstone: to design a framework for the reforestation of Mfangano Island in a way that protects the environment by leveraging and strengthening the power of the community’s cultural history and identity, and demonstrating the economic benefit of reforestation for Mfangano residents.
Advocacy work is certainly a very difficult way to earn a living, but working with OHR provided an opportunity to increase my plant knowledge bank, learn more about the ecological web, study human ecology and, at the same time, effect positive change that could benefit a microcosm of ecological systems, cultural influences and economic necessities that have been largely overlooked by the outside world.
The issues embedded in this project were too meaningful and profound. A quote by John Michuki, Kenyan Minister for Environment and Mineral Resources, summarizes much of what my capstone is about:
“Kenyan’s livelihoods are closely linked to their access to natural resources. As our population increases and environmental quality continues to decline, there is an increased risk of social and economic destabilization, which will have significant impacts on overall national security. Rural people are among the most vulnerable and insecure in terms of poverty, health, food security, economic losses, and conflicts resulting from competitive access to natural resources, among other factors.”
While this is happening all over the world, Mfangano is a microcosm of what is happening on a global scale. In this respect, Mfangano Island is a continent and Lake Victoria is the ocean. With limited and degraded natural resources and a deluge of social and economic challenges, how does a culture overcome these hurdles and thrive in spite of them?
This capstone is a drop of water in the monumental ocean of global challenges, but I saw it as an opportunity to learn more about what I love, in a place that amazes me and with a people who inspire me. Simply put, this project would bring greater value to a profession worth practicing and a life worth living. Commitment made.
To be continued…
About the Author: Emily Lowery recently earned a Master of Arts degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Minnesota. Her capstone project on reforestation of Mfangano Island in Kenya examines the interplay between ecology and culture through an artistic lens. She is a traveler, designer, graphic artist and nature enthusiast. To learn more, visit her website.
This article first appeared in Friends of Africa Magazine.