The silent disappearance of Nairobi’s green lungs MF

In the early 1990s the eastern edge of Kibera, Africa’s largest urban slum, was easy to recognize. A thick, dark, green forest separated the area from Karen, an affluent neighborhood on the other side. The forest was a playground for children and a home for buffaloes, gazelles, monkeys, chimpanzees, and many indigenous trees and birds. Ngong forest was Nairobi’s “green lungs,” helping to filter air filled with fumes from vehicles, industry, and burning waste.

Twenty years later, half of the forest is a dry and dusty wasteland. Every night, Ngong loses three to four trees and is slowly turning into grassland or, worse, shrubland nearly devoid of vegetation. The forest has been reduced from its original 2,900 hectares in 1932 to about 1,200 hectares today, 3 ½ times the size of New York’s Central Park, according to Ngong conservation group.

Identifying those responsible for the forest’s devastation is not necessarily difficult, but it is complex.

Kibera, where I have lived all my life, lacks reliable electricity, and firewood from the forest is the primary source of energy for households, restaurants, and shops. The wood is also used as construction timber for Kibera’s fast-growing population.

Around-the-clock security and an electronic fence erected by the government in 2015 are no match for the young men who sneak into the forest at night via secret access points. Once in, the poachers strategically take down two or three mahogany trees with handsaws, machetes, and axes, chopping them into smaller pieces and bundling them to carry out on their backs or heads. They then sell the wood for approximately 1,000 shillings ($10) per tree, making this a lucrative business in Kibera, where the average income is less than $2 a day.

Despite efforts by the government and community associations to stop the illegal logging, the practice continues. Corruption and bribery ensure that the loggers operate with impunity, and people in Kibera need the forest’s firewood as a reliable and affordable source of energy.

In a couple of years, “the green lungs” of Nairobi could be a thing of the past. If that happens, the consequences will not be solely environmental. The forest is an important natural refuge for the residents of Nairobi and, as the site of a large scouting camp and the headquarters of the country’s scouting association, for Kenya as a whole.

This overlooked story has several facets: the consequences of deforestation for locals as well as their dependence on the forest for firewood, the economic pressures that drive desperate young men into the forest at night with their axes, and the struggles of those trying to save the forest.

My project will be a documentary series and blog that will combine photography with written storytelling. Each edition will feature different actors and issues – nature lovers, the Kibera loggers, the poverty that drives the deforestation, official efforts to stop the logging – and I will offer possible solutions.

I’m humbled and excited to have this story chosen for a Press Start crowdfunding campaign. In Kenya we have very little donor support for freelance journalists – most grants I’ve come across target media organizations or staff journalists. Also, because this story is sensitive, I can’t be sure of any support locally. That’s why I’m appealing to donors from all corners of the globe to contribute to this endeavor that is meant to end this menace.

raised $0 out of $2,120