Researchers study future of Kenya’s ‘last big mountain forest’

When the Mau Forest suffers, so do an estimated 6 million Kenyans who depend on it for their water.
The Mau Forest complex serves as Kenya’s single most important water catchment area.

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One forest, myriad functions.

The pressure on Kenya’s Mau Forest and the land-use changes occurring in and around it are among the most pressing environmental issues facing the country today, raising questions about the future of the forest—and of the millions of people who depend on the services and products it provides.

How do land-use changes affect the water supply that this forest landscape protects—and what does that mean for the people who depend on it? How does the conversion of forest for commercial and smallholder agriculture, ranching or timber plantations affect greenhouse gas emissions? What do the changes in the landscape mean for climate change, its mitigation and people’s ability to adapt to it?

These are the precisely the research questions that the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) — together with its international and Kenyan partners — is tackling on landscapes in and around the Mau Forest.

“We have a team of people working on hydrological cycles, on greenhouse gas emissions from mountain forests and from forest transitions in the region,” said CIFOR scientist Mariana Rufino, who is leading the project. “We are estimating water flows and water quality from different land uses, and for those same land uses we are estimating carbon stocks and greenhouse gas emissions.”

The three-year project is funded by the CGIAR Fund under the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (CRP-FTA) led by CIFOR.

The aim of the research, according to Rufino, is to determine the best-case scenarios for sustainable management of forest resources and the ecosystem services they provide, the provisioning of goods and water, and their contribution to resilience and adaptation in the context of climate change.

“It’s Kenya’s last big, natural mountain forest,” she added. “And we want to show that is it not just important for water provision, but also in terms of biodiversity and the contribution to carbon sequestration.”


It is difficult to convey the immense value of the Mau Forest complex. It serves as Kenya’s single most important water catchment area. The ecological services that the Mau Complex provides are estimated to have an annual market value of USD 1.3 billion, supporting Kenya’s most important economic sectors, including energy, tourism, and agriculture. It acts as a natural water tower, the source of water for many urban centers in Kenya, forming the upper catchment of 12 rivers and feeding five major lakes, including Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile.

We have an idea that the frequency of droughts and floods is going to increase

Mariana Rufino

So when the Mau Forest suffers, so do an estimated 6 million Kenyans who depend on it for their water; the impact can be felt well beyond the borders, as far away as Egypt.

And the Mau Forest is suffering.

Between 1991 and 2011, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) calculates that the Mau Complex lost about 107,000 hectares—almost a quarter of its forest cover—largely due to encroachment for settlements; illegal resource extraction such as logging and charcoal production; and the change in land use from forest to large-scale tea plantations and smallholder agriculture (including change in ownership from public to private). This has taken a toll on the rivers and lakes that depend on the Mau forest catchment area.

In the words of the United Nations, such extensive destruction of “key natural assets for the country is a matter of national and regional concern.”


The research project to quantify the hydrological, carbon and nutrient dynamics in forest and forest transitions in the Mau complex is collecting data that will show some of the environmental costs — in terms of water supply, carbon losses, and greenhouse gas emissions — to Kenya and its neighbors when the land is converted from forest to other uses.

“We have an idea that the frequency of droughts and floods is going to increase,” Rufino explained. “So we are collecting biophysical data that allow us to estimate the risk of the increasing frequency of floods and droughts.”

This deeply concerns communities around the Mau complex with whom the researchers are working to collect data. “While greenhouse gases and climate change may be abstract ideas for them, changes in soil fertility and productivity and preserving water resources make sense to them, as these relate to their own livelihoods,” she said.

The project is making use of sophisticated environmental research technology, much of it supported by Germany by the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and the University of Giessen, expressly for the purpose of analyzing environmental and climate change data in Kenya.

The field work by CIFOR researchers in and around the Mau Forest Complex, together with the highly technical analysis and lab work they are doing, is made possible by the unique collaboration among scientists from CIFOR, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), KIT and Kenyan partners. Together, they are establishing a center of excellence for environmental research, the first of its kind in East Africa. The new Mazingira Center—mazingira is KiSwahili for “environment”—has its headquarters on the campus of ILRI in Nairobi and includes state-of-the-art experimental and laboratory facilities. There, scientists are able to analyze the fluxes in greenhouse gas emissions from soils and the hydrological data they collect in and around the Mau Forest complex.

The Mazingira Center also doubles as a training facility, a place where the next generation of African environmental scientists and technicians are honing their skills and building their capacity for environmental and climate change research.

The project results, Rufino says, will be transformed into information briefs that can be used to develop the policy options that are so urgently needed by regional decision makers seeking—in the complex of climate change—to sustainably manage precious natural resources, such as those in the Mau Forest Complex.

For more information about this research, contact Mariana Rufino at m.rufino@cgiar.org.

This project is supported by the CGIAR Fund and forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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