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The subsistence farmers complained that the forest brought nothing but suffering. At night animals came out from behind the trees and destroyed the farmers' cassava, maize and cashew nut crops. 'Elephants can eat and trample all your crops in one night. The baboons steal maize when it is growing. Then you have nothing to eat... or to sell,' says Charo Ngambao.
Charo is talking about the Arabuko-Sokoke forest, the second most important in Africa, located some 80 kilometres north of Kenyan city of Mombasa. At one time this ancient coastal woodland stretched from Somalia to Mozambique. Now just 400 square kilometres remain.
Visitors from all over the world come to Arabuko-Sokoke to see some of the 230 kinds of birds that nest here, among them 6 globally threatened species. Here too live several unique plants and animals that are found nowhere else on earth - such as the Sokoke scops owl - and endangered species like the African elephant and the Sokoke bushy-tailed mongoose.
Yet 10 years ago the majority of local people like Charo living on the edge of the forest wanted it to be cut down and allocated to them as farmland. When he and others like him tried to supplement their meagre incomes by taking wood from the forest, they risked arrest and prosecution by local police.
Charo was jailed for illegal logging back in 1982. Kenyan prisons are a virtual death sentence. Malnourished inmates are locked into filthy, overcrowded cells where they sleep on the floor, often among their own waste. Fatalities are common. 'I stayed in prison two weeks but then I paid the fine. I don't want to go back there again,' he recalls.
Today Charo no longer steals timber. Instead he works with the forest to create butterflies and butterfly eggs. When the eggs hatch into caterpillars he looks after them, feeding them on forest leaves until they pupate. The pupae are then exported to butterfly houses in Europe and the United States, before the butterflies emerge.
His work forms part of a project that conservationists developed in 1993 to persuade locals that it was in their interests to preserve the forest. Called the Kipepeo Project (Kipepeo means butterfly in the local Kiswahili language) farmers like Ngambao make in a good week about US$20 from selling the pupae, compared to 25 cents before the project started. He now has money to send his seven children to school and pay for medical treatment. And with loans from Kipepeo, his family has also been able to set up two other businesses. 'We have opened a kiosk and my wife also is tailoring with a machine we got from the Kipepeo project.'
The majority of butterfly farmers are women. Looking after the caterpillars is a job that they can fit in between their many other domestic chores. Florance Riziki, a mother of six, lives with her fifteen family members in two mud houses on the edge of the forest. Cats and dogs run around the compound playing with the children while the women sit in the shade of a tree preparing beans for lunch. They are largely self-sufficient. Chickens and cows provide meat and milk and a vegetable patch provides greens, maize and tomatoes.
However - like Charo - Florance and her family barely had access to the cash economy before the Kipepeo project started, so paying for school fees and medical bills was a real problem. Now, with the money they earn from Kipepeo, they are keen guardians of the forest that grows beside them.
'We are trying to conserve it by looking at who is the enemy, who is going to cut timber. Then we tell him to change, maybe to start rearing butterflies instead of cutting the trees,' says Florance's husband, Matano Unda.
Charo Ngumbao agrees. 'We get rain from the forest. It brings clouds from the sea to the place where we live. So we educate others to know the benefit of the forest. We need them to join us,' he says.
But not everyone is happy. There simply isn't a big enough overseas market for butterflies for everyone to join the Kipepeo project. Those left out attack the butterfly farmers - sometimes physically - for sabotaging their efforts to get the forest cleared and given out as farmland.
For politicians this tension provides an emotive electioneering tool. 'Some politicians tell the community to refuse to do butterfly farming because the money is not enough,' explains Ngumbao. 'They say they will go to President Moi and get permission to divide the forest and then people will get title deeds and take them to the bank and get loans. But that is not true. They have been promising that for 10 years. And the sandy soil is not good for farming,' he says.
Land-hungry squatters have invaded the forest several times. In 1997 - Kenya's last election year - a prolonged campaign to have 5,000 acres excised nearly succeeded. The Kipepeo farmers were at the forefront of the battle to save the forest, along with tourism industry stakeholders and environmentalists.
Another election is scheduled to take place this month and the Kipepeo farmers fear the issue of land could once again be used to garner votes. Last year the Kenyan government decided to excise 167,000 acres of forest land, ostensibly to give it to landless squatters. But many observers believe the plots will end up in the hands of politically connected government supporters.
Despite the ongoing tensions Kipepeo's manager, Washington Ayiemba, believes the project has been a great success.
'Since 1993, local communities have earned Ksh10 million ($128,200) from the Kipepeo project. In terms of big business, the profits are quite small. But in terms of driving the conservation agenda, it's been a showcase where communities have been able to participate and the programme has been able to sustain itself, breaking even after about four years,' he says.
'Initially, we had only 150 recruits. But now we have over 1,000 people each year who want to participate and we have to limit them to 700 because of the market problems,' he says.
Butterflies take flight in certain seasons. In addition, only people living within five kilometres of the forest are allowed to join the project now. So the Kipepeo Project is looking into other ways in which the forest can benefit local communities. Bee-keeping started in 1999. The hope is that the honey it will produce - a future export currently only sold to nearby hotels - will provide a further sweetener to those who now seek to destroy the forest.
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