The air in Gazi village, located in Kwale County, feels refreshingly clean and pure, devoid of the city’s pollutants. Instead of the familiar cacophony, the melodious songs of birds greet one, their voices filling the tranquil atmosphere.
The pace of life in Gazi village appears more measured and calmer, as the locals seamlessly carry out their day-to-day routines. It doesn’t take long for the close-knit community to recognize an outsider, extending warm greetings and genuine hospitality that immediately foster a sense of belonging and make them feel instantly welcome.
Gazi, located in the eastern part of Kenya’s Coast Province, is a small settlement adjacent to the southern coast of Kenya along the Indian Ocean, known for its abundant fishing activities. The presence of mangrove trees in the area contributes to the prevalence of fishing, as these trees serve as crucial nurseries for fish, providing employment opportunities for the local community.
In addition to their role as fish habitats, mangroves play a vital environmental role. They act as carbon sinks, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and their intricate root systems stabilize sediments, preventing erosion and safeguarding shorelines against storms, hurricanes, waves, and floods.
However, based on the National Mangrove Ecosystem Management Plan, it was reported in 2020 that about 45% of the mangroves in Kwale County, needed restoration. This reduction can be attributed to human activities such as deforestation, as the trees are cut down for construction purposes, including building houses, boats, pilings, furniture, and charcoal production. Deforestation leads to detrimental consequences such as soil erosion, degradation, depletion of water resources, and increased vulnerability of the local population to climate-related events.
Kwale County Forest Conservator Mr. Blessings Maganga pointed out Kenya Forest Service Mangrove Strategic Management Plan – 2017 to 2027 – quoted 40% of mangrove forest was degraded.
Yet, amidst this daunting predicament, we uncover the inspiring stories of women who champion the preservation of these vital mangroves—dedicated individuals who strive to protect and restore this fragile ecosystem, ensuring a sustainable future for both nature and the community it supports.
Mwanahamisi Bakari, aged 52, has been an integral member of the Gazi Mangrove Women Boardwalk since its establishment 17 years ago. In 2022, she was elected as the group’s chairperson, a role that she finds deeply fulfilling. She recounts the origins of the group, which emerged as a result of comprehensive research conducted by the Kenya Marine Authority and environmentalists from Belgium, focusing on mangroves and marine life.
Following thorough deliberations and consultations, Bakari emphasized the decision to entrust women with the responsibility of spearheading this project. Recognizing the valuable contributions and capabilities of women, it was agreed upon that they would take the lead in driving this initiative forward.
“Women exhibit exceptional dedication and often have fewer commitments compared to men. Consequently, women are frequently assigned projects due to their inherent nurturing qualities,” says Bakari.
The primary objective of the Gazi Women Mangrove Boardwalk is to safeguard the mangrove trees from local deforestation activities and engage in extensive replanting efforts to restore the lost mangrove areas.
At least twice a year, they establish large-scale mangrove nurseries to cater to the needs of degraded areas. Additionally, they extend their services to neighboring communities seeking to restore mangroves by supplying them with nursery stock.
Curiosity drove me to explore the journey of a mangrove tree from its infancy to maturity, and Mwanahamisi enlightened me by explaining that these trees don’t demand any extraordinary care. Once they are planted, they have the potential to thrive as long as they are allowed to reach maturity without being felled.
Kassim Juma, the project coordinator of Mikoko Pamoja, another community group dedicated to preserving the mangroves in Gazi Village, added that during their growth, mangroves encounter several obstacles, such as the risk of being uprooted by floods and battered by hurricane winds. Moreover, they are susceptible to being consumed by pests.
The Gazi Women Mangrove Boardwalk proudly stands out among the numerous community groups, exceeding 200 in number, that operate under the governance and regulation of the Community Forest Association, widely known as CFA. Hafsa Mohammed Zuga, the treasurer of CFA, emphasized that the CFA serves as the overarching body that provides guidance and support to these groups.
“We serve as the vital connection between the Kenya Forest Service and the community groups. The ownership of the mangrove forest resides with the government, and it is through the Community Forest Association (CFA) that these groups register and obtain permits to engage in activities within the mangrove forest, all for the betterment of their community. We stand alongside them throughout their journey, providing the necessary support they require. Whether it’s assisting in nursery preparations or coordinating logistics for tourist visits, they rely on us, and we are readily available to offer our assistance and expertise.” Hafsa said.
In 2018, former President Uhuru Kenyatta enacted a five-year-old ban that prohibited cutting mangroves in Kilifi, Kwale, Mombasa, and Tana River counties. The purpose was to combat environmental degradation, safeguard water sources, and alleviate the impact of drought nationwide. Five years after the ban, Mr. Blessing Maganga, reports significant progress and improvement.
“We have made remarkable strides in the regeneration and restoration of depleted regions. In Kwale County, the expanse of mangrove trees spans 8,200 hectares. As a result of the ban, communities have recognized the need to find alternative sources for their firewood and timber requirements, no longer solely relying on mangroves. Consequently, they have begun investing in the cultivation of short-rotation cycle trees such as Casuarina and blue-gums to meet their firewood and timber needs. Initially, there was nearly 100% dependency on mangroves, which inevitably resulted in their degradation.”
Mwanakombo Jarumani, a dedicated environmentalist and chair lady of Sauti ya Wanawake in Kwale County, fervently advocates for the planting of terrestrial trees with the specific aim of preventing the cutting down of mangroves. She consistently expressed her passionate commitment to this cause.
Nevertheless, she firmly emphasized the importance of reforestation efforts by asserting that for every tree cut down for timber or firewood, at least two new trees should be planted as compensation. This commitment to planting ensures a balance between resource utilization and ecological restoration, ultimately contributing to the long-term sustainability of the environment.
Kassim Juma shares a similar vision with Mwanakombo. In their initiative called Mikoko Pamoja, they have planted fast-growing terrestrial trees to alleviate the need for cutting down mangroves.
“We have planted trees, such as Casuarina, in our local schools, which mature in just seven years. This way, anyone in need of timber or charcoal can purchase these trees from the schools. The residents have been incredibly supportive once they realized that mangroves contribute to an increased fish population, subsequently creating employment opportunities for them,” explained Kassim.
The Carbon Credit
The importance of mangrove forests goes beyond their ecological significance. These unique ecosystems have become a vital source of economic sustainability through the generation of carbon credits.
Carbon credits are a way to measure and trade reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. They represent a measurement unit corresponding to one metric ton of carbon dioxide or its equivalent reduced or removed from the atmosphere. Companies or projects that can reduce their carbon emissions can earn carbon credits, which can then be sold or traded to other entities. This system encourages and incentivizes emission reductions and contributes to mitigating climate change.
The Gazi Women Mangrove Boardwalk and Mikoko Pamoja projects have successfully transformed the conservation of mangroves into a sustainable livelihood by earning income from carbon credits.
“The residents of Gazi are reaping significant benefits from carbon credits. Every year, we receive payments from the sale of carbon credits, which have been utilized for various community improvements. With the funds collected, we have purchased textbooks for our local schools, supplied medical equipment to the nearby hospital, and installed a water system that has brought convenient access to water right to our doorsteps.” Mwanahimisi states.
According to Conservation International, mangroves possess a remarkable capacity to store carbon, surpassing any other ecosystem on our planet. Despite covering just 0.1 percent of the earth’s surface, mangrove forests can store up to 10 times more carbon per hectare compared to terrestrial forests.
This remarkable ability to store carbon positions mangroves as a crucial component in combating climate change. Access to clean air, free from carbon dioxide, is considered a fundamental human right.
Furthermore, on July 28 of this year, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution recognizing the universal human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. In Gazi, not only do they benefit from the clean air, but they also generate income by trading carbon credits obtained from mangrove conservation efforts.
Women are increasingly taking on leadership roles and actively participating in the preservation and restoration of mangrove forests. By gaining access to education, resources, and training programs, these empowered women have become instrumental in advocating for the significance of mangroves and implementing sustainable practices that ensure the long-term viability of these crucial ecosystems. Their involvement not only fosters environmental conservation but also serves as an inspiration, demonstrating the transformative power of women’s empowerment in creating positive environmental change.
Juma elaborates that the Mikoko Pamoja program has established a 13-member committee, with a diverse composition of 5 women and 8 men, all actively engaged in their endeavors to conserve the forest. Juma continues that, recognizing the remarkable energy and dedication exhibited by women in the area, the initiative has made a deliberate effort to involve them in environmental activities that were traditionally perceived as male-dominated. He is proud that women are taking leadership roles in protecting the forest.
“By providing sensitization and raising awareness, women have enthusiastically embraced the cause of mangrove conservation and play an integral role in the efforts. They are actively included in all activities, with a particular emphasis on involving them in decision-making processes, ensuring their valuable perspectives are valued and integrated into the overall conservation strategy.” Kassim Juma concluded.
Expressing her strong stance on environmental conservation, Mwanakombo Jerumani, an ardent advocate from Kwale County, emphasizes the importance of including women in such initiatives. “As a woman and a leader within my community, I confidently represent the voices of other women. Women, being the mirrors of society, hold a pivotal role, and if they falter, everything else may suffer. Therefore, women play a critical role in educating and promoting environmental conservation. This significance is echoed even in the Quran, which acknowledges women as the first class of any human being. Women must take the lead in safeguarding the environment. Our collective goal is to transform Kwale County into a green and sustainable region, and we are committed to doing whatever it takes to achieve this vision.”
Offering her perspective on women’s engagement in environmental conservation, Hafsa Mohammed Zuga, highlighted the advantages that women derive from their active participation in such endeavors.
“The conservation of mangroves yields numerous benefits, particularly for women. As we are often entrusted with the task of educating children, the financial gains from mangrove conservation directly contribute to purchasing books for local schools, alleviating the burden on us. Furthermore, women have historically endured the arduous task of traveling long distances in search of water, but with the installation of water facilities, they now have more time to engage in entrepreneurial pursuits. As a woman and leader of CFA, I wholeheartedly endorse and support women’s participation in these initiatives, recognizing the tangible advantages they bring to our communities.”
Thriving Amidst Adversity
Despite notable achievements in mangrove conservation, these women have encountered their fair share of challenges within the field. They have persistently navigated gender biases, unequal opportunities, and intimidation, yet their contributions remain substantial.
Mwanakombo Jarumani pointed out that not all villages have embraced the concept of mangrove conservation. “Some villagers claim a lack of water when urged to plant trees, while others who rely on timber for their livelihoods insist on cutting down trees without replanting them. This resistance poses challenges to the preservation efforts.”
The Gazi Women Mangrove Boardwalk boasts a magnificent bridge that attracts visitors worldwide. “The bridge occasionally suffers damage, and the locals have been known to pilfer the valuable construction materials. Such incidents divert resources meant for growth towards repairs and replacements, hindering progress. To address this, the community has engaged in dialogue, and the presence of group members at the site has significantly reduced such occurrences.” Mwanahamisi stated.
Kwale County struggles with a patriarchal mindset, as described by Jarumani, where gender stereotypes are deeply embedded in the culture. “Being accepted as a woman leader is a gradual process, but progress is being made. Women were initially believed to be incapable of addressing crowds, despite the demands of their advocacy work. Some even claim that women who “talk a lot” like us are unlikely to find husbands. However, efforts are underway to educate the community and promote the understanding that both men and women have important roles in solving societal problems. Women deserve opportunities to lead, and if they make mistakes, they can be corrected.”
This story was first published in Talk Africa