Once upon a time, there was a tropical forest that stretched all the way from Somalia to Mozambique. Today, there isn’t much left. In Kenya all that’s left of the forest is 42,000 hectares on the coast called the Arabuko Sokoke Forest.
“Arabuko Sokoke has a very rich biodiversity with more than 600 different tree species, 250 bird species such as the Clarke's weaver, 230 species of mammals and different insects species, including more than 230 different butterflies,” says Elvis Katana Fondo, assistant ecosystem conservator for the Kenya Forest Service in Kilifi. “In addition to a rich terrestrial ecosystem, it also boasts a unique marine ecosystem, with more than 8,000 hectares of mangroves. That is part of what makes this forest so special and why it is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) heritage site.”
In order to preserve this unique forest, the Kenya Forest Service decided to work with local communities in line with the 2005 Forest Act which states that communities whose livelihood depends on the forest around them should be included in all decisions about the forest. The UN-REDD Programme, through the United Nations Development Programme, introduced rules for free, prior and informed consent that lay out a series of guidelines on how to make this happen.
In practice, this means that people living up to 5 kilometres from the forest have to organize themselves into Community Forest Associations, allowing the the Kenya Forest Service to work with them and give them rights to collect firewood, water and herbal medicines within 1 kilometre of the forest periphery. This forest was one of the first places in Kenya where participatory forest management was piloted.
Charo Ngumbao, chairman for one of three Community Forest Associations in Arabuko, has 1500 members, of whom 85 per cent are women. “Examples of the various user groups that we have in my group are people working on eco-tourism such as bird watching. Other groups are involved with beekeeping, tree planting and tree nurseries; others act as community scouts to assist the forest guides and last but not least, there is a group of women involved in butterfly farming.”
Butterfly farming was introduced in Arabuko Sokoke in 1993 as a local community project to directly generate income to the community from the forest so as to enhance conservation of the forest resources which were threated from over exploitation. Jan Godon, the former head of Nature Kenya, set up the export of butterfly pupas (cocoons) to Stratford upon Avon in the United Kingdom and recently new markets have been added, including the United States, Turkey and Dubai. There are weekly shipments and the price varies from US$0.50 to almost US$2 per butterfly.
“The butterflies, called kipepeo in Kiswahili, will hatch upon arrival at their destination and are used for wedding ceremonies, exhibitions and collectors. Their very short lifespan (up to ten days) makes it a delicate export. Each species of butterfly has its own value depending on colour, pattern and how difficult it is to breed, and each species breeds in a specific indigenous tree. Keeping the forest healthy is therefore essential to the survival of the butterflies. We’ve come to realize that we don’t want the forest to be cleared,” says Emily Katana, a butterfly farmer. “It’s our treasure and source of income.”
Butterfly farming has its challenges. “We are trained to trap them from 9 a.m. using bananas and mangoes that are placed inside the traps in the forest. In the evening, we return to the forest to remove the trapped butterflies and take them to our breeding places where we feed them until they lay their eggs, which then hatch into caterpillars. The caterpillars eat leaves until they turn into the pupae state, where they cocoon themselves. It is at this point that we sell them before they hatch into butterflies,” says Katana.
Katana and other butterfly farmers sell the pupae to Kipepeo Butterflies House (KBH), a company that buys and sells butterflies to the international market. “It’s a fragile product, but it pays our kids’ school fees, their clothes and even desks for the local schools,” says Chenola Tabou, another member of the butterfly famers group.
The Kipepeo project started in 1993 with an inception fund of US$50,000 provided by the Global Environment Facility and the United Nations Development Programme, but these days, they have a yearly revenue of about US$100,000. “We pay the farmers weekly based on what has reached the customers in good shape,” says project manager, Hussein Adulai. “Since it’s a fragile product, there is no guarantee of payment. But still, the business has been growing since 2016 despite competition from Costa Rica, Nepal and the Philippines. We are now self-sustainable and there are 870 people living from it.”
“Ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, and encourage economic growth, in an environmentally sustainable way. Helping to provide alternative livelihoods for communities living near forests can not only reduce poverty, but also conserve forests and help tackle climate change,” says Judith Walcott from the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre on behalf of the UN-REDD Programme.