I don’t know many churches that will fight to protect a forest. Until now, I don’t think I knew even one.
But loving God compels us to love the stuff he made. And loving our neighbors demands that we love the natural world they depend on. In the small Kenyan town of Kijabe, Christians seem to have figured this out, and in the West, we’d do well to take heed.
Kijabe is home of one of the most important mission hospitals in Africa, perched on the rim of the Great Rift Valley, halfway up the steep escarpment that rises thousands of feet from the valley floor into the East African mists. For thousands of years, thick forests have protected the escarpment from washing into the valley during the rainy season, regulating water flows and sustaining the microclimate upon which the community relies for food.
At first glance, Kijabe’s forests still appear lush and green. But a closer look reveals a shocking reality: 80 percent of its forest cover has been destroyed by firewood poachers in the last 30 years. And in 2012, Kijabe’s church leaders began sounding the alarm. They warned of the threat of catastrophic mudslides and the loss of fertile soils. They warned of crop failures due to a microclimate no longer protected by the felled trees. And they warned of malaria outbreaks in the hotter local weather.
But they were dealing with armed forest poachers, and the entire community feared them. It’s hard to picture pastors and elders rolling up their sleeves to fight for the creation, but Kijabe’s Christian leaders took up the challenge.
“We have to fight, even if it means forgetting that we are pastors and become radicals,” said David Mwangi, an elder in the African Inland Church (AIC) last April.
Kijabe was once one of the greenest places in Kenya. But it has been gradually turning into a windy savannah. Roughly 110,000 people live in the surrounding region, one of the poorest between Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, and the city of Nakuru to the north.
Most families depend on charcoal for their cook stoves. Kenyan authorities have promoted agroforestry as a sustainable way to meet this demand. Others have encouraged conversion to liquid propane gas. Still others have developed biogas systems to generate cooking gas from cow manure.
But old habits die hard, even if they are illegal. The once-bounteous forest has beckoned to poachers, who intimidate or bribe forest rangers. And most days, Kijabe’s people are faced with wisps of smoke rising above the forest canopy from makeshift kilns turning felled trees into charcoal.
No community can take its prospective destruction lightly. But Kijabe is unusually important – and unusually vulnerable. The AIC Kijabe Hospital serves at least 600,000 patients each year, rivaling the largest hospitals in East Africa. They perform at least 12,000 surgeries per year, second only to the Kenyatta National Hospital. Together with another medical center, two large schools and a Bible college, Kijabe Hospital sits on a precarious perch below a massive slope of unstable soils, held in place only by forest root systems.
I visited Kijabe this spring. Kenya was in the midst of a record extreme rainy season, reflecting a pattern of drought and flooding that has become routine in equatorial Africa. Several days before my scheduled visit, we heard the terrible news: Kijabe had been hit by a massive mudslide; all roads into town had been severed; three little girls had been killed by the muddy wave of debris; the water supply to the hospital had been cut – just like the church leaders had warned the year before.
Several days later, I arrived on a bus that crept down the damaged escarpment road. People were working everywhere to clear the mud and debris, and to restore services at the hospital. But mission expats and Kenyans also began to work on another front. Under the leadership of an environmental missionary (see end note) and a high school teacher, the community organized a four-man citizen patrol to begin enforcement of Kijabe’s forest protection laws.
The patrol began by marking with paint more than 10,000 tree stumps, to develop a baseline to measure ongoing poaching. They rooted out forest kiln operations, and hauled several poachers before the local magistrates. Community leaders began to mobilize local pastors to train congregations in creation care. Finally, it seemed that Kijabe was about to turn a corner on the abuse of its forest.
But the poachers weren’t going to slink away without a fight. Just like polluters in the West, they don’t care about the connection between their activities and the suffering of the community. And less than two months ago, Kijabe spilled its first blood in the fight for its forest. The little citizen patrol, together with American teacher Jeff Davis, surprised a group of four poachers, and quickly subdued them. Jeff set off for a truck to carry the poachers and their charcoal to the local magistrate.
I wasn’t there to see what happened next. But before Davis could return, a large gang arrived on the scene. The unarmed patrol found itself surrounded by fourteen men, some of them carrying long bush knives. Two managed to escape into the bush; two were severely beaten; one lost his hearing in one ear; both wound up in Kijabe Hospital.
You might think that the attack would have intimidated the patrol and the community. But Davis said that Kijabe’s resolve has only been strengthened.
“When our guards were attacked and beaten,” said Davis, “their response was that this will only make them more determined to see the forest protected. If we can assure them of continued employment, bolstered by basic equipment such as uniforms, boots, and cameras, this will strengthen their resolve to no end.”
So with funding from both the community and beyond, Kijabe is doubling the size of its forest patrol. They are purchasing cameras, boots, uniforms, and basic equipment. They are demanding that Kenya’s Forest Service enforce its laws. Churches are mobilizing their congregations to unite against forest destruction. They are replanting trees and promoting energy efficiency.
A nice story, perhaps? But really, what does it have to do with us?
It’s never easy to see the arc of environmental collapse when you’re in the midst of it. We Americans, who – on average – generate more greenhouse gases than 57 Kenyans; who keep our barren farm soils on life support with yearly petrochemical transfusions; who deplete our aquifers while we water useless lawns; who commute to work from the furthest reaches of suburban sprawl; who can’t remember the last time we walked to a store, to church, or to visit a friend – it’s hard for us to see the effects of our life choices.
But our children will surely look back on our watch as pivotal in the struggle to protect the creation. This year, CO2 concentrations broke 400 parts per million for the first time in a million years. Either we’ll demand national and global-scale action, or we’ll bequeath to them a broken ecosystem no more secure than Kijabe’s precarious perch.
What can we do?
Why not start small? It’s September, and the next two months are tree-planting season in most temperate climates. It’s not that hard to plant a tree, if only to remind yourself of a thousand other things you can do in the year ahead. (Click here for a sampling!)
And here’s one other thing you can do: Lend a hand to the people of Kijabe with their struggle to save their forest, their hospital and their town. A dollar goes a long way in Kenya, and yours can make a huge difference. Click here and send us a note to find out more.
Note: Environmental mission Care of Creation Kenya (CCK), directed by Craig Sorley, is based in Kijabe, and has been deeply involved in all efforts to protect the Kijabe ecosystem. CCK leads community development efforts focused on forest rehabilitation, energy efficiency and a sustainable agriculture system called Farming God’s Way. CCK is affiliated with US-based Care of Creation, directed by creation-care leader Ed Brown, who also directs the Lausanne Movementtask force on creation care and the gospel.