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African countries must respond to an increasing demand for food while delivering on their national commitments to the global climate agenda. Meanwhile, the land use sector accounts for up to 40% of the continent’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Kenya is one of the countries facing this intertwined challenge. The Mau Forest, located in its highlands, is the largest remaining montane forest complex in East Africa, but it is under pressure by a growing community of smallholders contributing some 80% of the national milk production.

To inform agricultural and forest mitigation policies, researchers from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and partner organizations have conducted the first in-depth study on what drives forest disturbance in the Mau Forest and how this relates to dairy intensification in the region.

The study is part of the larger Greening Livestock project led by the International Livestock Research Institute on mitigation of climate change in the livestock sector, an initiative that engages stakeholders ranging from ministries of environment and agriculture to counties. Such work will help disseminate the findings of the research to the relevant actors making land use decisions at national and subnational scale, says Mariana Rufino, chair of agricultural systems at Lancaster University.

“There had been farm-level analyses showing that better feed led to a higher production of meat or milk with the same amount of emissions,” she points out. “However, these studies did not consider the impact of intensification at the landscape level: emissions may decline in an individual farm, while increasing in the neighboring forest where livestock graze.”

   In Kenya's Rift Valley, the Mau Forest complex covers 273,300 hectares, making it East Africa's largest indigenous forest. CIFOR Photo/Sande Murunga


The study, led by CIFOR researcher Patric Brandt, is the first to combine a remote sensing approach with an analysis of on-farm feed production, to explore whether sustainable intensification in the Mau Forest makes sense for the people and the region.

The researchers found that about 18% of the Mau forest area had been disturbed between 2010 and 2016, and that livestock grazing and firewood extraction were the main drivers in 75% of the spots sampled.

They also found that higher on-farm cattle stocking rates and firewood collection caused up to a 10% increase in risk of forest disturbance, while higher milk yields, increased supplementation with concentrated feeds, and more farm area allocated to fodder production were associated with up to a 7% risk reduction.

Thus, the paper notes that more intensified farms had a significantly lower impact on forest disturbance than small and resource-poor farms, and large and inefficient farms. “Our results show that intensification of smallholder dairy farming leads to both farm efficiency gains and reduced forest disturbance,” says Brandt.

Less disturbance means fewer GHG emissions, although Rufino warns that “the positive effect of intensification may be lost if the number of dairy farms greatly increases in the region.”

Intensification of smallholder dairy farming leads to both farm efficiency gains and reduced forest disturbance

Patric Brandt, CIFOR researcher
   Women carrying firewood in the Mau area. CIFOR Photo/Sande Murunga


The results support mitigation options that increase productivity and minimize negative effects on forests at the same time. “Our findings can inform national policies and also improve management and monitoring tools at the regional scale,” says Rufino.

She points out that the study is particularly timely, given that Kenya is working on two important mechanisms: a strategy to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) and a nationally appropriate mitigation action (NAMA) for the dairy sector – the first of its kind in the region.

“The NAMA currently focuses on reducing emissions at the farm level, instead of quantifying them at the landscape level to reduce the possibility of carbon leakage,” she says, in reference to the risk of reducing emissions on farms at the expense of increasing them in neighboring forests, where feed might come from.

The paper mentions the need of providing incentive-based climate financing to farmers, cooperatives and the private sector involved in dairy production. “These funds could be accessed once certain criteria are fulfilled, such as implementing on-farm feed intensification that mitigates direct and indirect GHG emissions and increases farm productivity.”

Some possibilities are increasing farmers’ access to more affordable feeds and providing them with the necessary inputs for on-farm fodder production. From Rufino’s perspective, though, such measures should be accompanied by regulations and oversight.

“Why would people go to the market when they can get the feed for free in the forest?” she queries. From her perspective, a potential solution could be linking the NAMA and REDD+ policies so the incentives for climate-smart agriculture and forest conservation are intertwined. The ultimate objective is achieving effective mitigation in the land use sector as a whole, notes the paper.

The paper matters to policy-makers, but Rufino also calls on scientists to embark on similar studies elsewhere. “It would be interesting to see the type and size of the effects we quantified in drier environments,” she says. “I encourage further research in different ecosystems, so we can better understand – and address – the impact of livestock on forests.”

For more information on this topic, please contact Patric Brandt at or Mariana Rufino at
This research was supported by the CGIAR program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and the IFAD-funded project ‘Greening livestock: incentive-based interventions for reducing the climate impact of livestock production in East Africa’. It was also supported by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) and Germany’s International Climate Initiative (IKI) through CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+.
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