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Kenyan Catholic Diocese Launches Model “Church Forest” to Encourage Tree Planting

Parishioners of St Michael Catholic Mission in Kilifi within Kenya's Catholic Diocese of Malindi during the launch of tree planting activities in the Diocese on 13 April 2021

Bishop Wilybard Lagho’s passion for environmental conservation dates back to his childhood many years before he became a Priest and ascended to the helm of Kenya’s Catholic Diocese of Malindi where his passion continues to blossom.

Born to a father who was a District Agricultural Officer in Taita-Taveta, an agricultural region located Northwest of Kenya’s coastal town within the Catholic Diocese of Mombasa, Bishop Lagho was introduced to issues about the environment and farming at a tender age.

“My father was passionate about farming and he introduced coffee farming in Taita hills in his position as agricultural officer. I remember the many times he brought me along to visit farmers and we slept in tents in forests. That’s how my love for nature and forests grew,” Bishop Lagho told ACI Africa on the sidelines of a tree planting session that took place in the Diocese on Tuesday, April 13.

He grew up in a family where all children were encouraged to grow trees and to conserve the environment.

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“Back then when schools closed, the first thing we did was to plant at least 20 trees each, and by the time schools were re-opening, our father would go around checking our projects to see that we indeed planted the trees and that they were thriving,” Bishop Lagho said in recollection.

He further recalled, “Thankfully in Taita Hills, rains were abundant and therefore the survival rates of our trees were always high. This is how I was brought up. Always loving trees and knowing their importance.”

The Kenyan Bishop’s passion for the environment was at the heart of his 33 years of Priesthood in Kenya’s Archdiocese of Mombasa where he founded the Ecological Development Centre (ECODEVEC), a non-governmental organization that equips farmers with farming practices that do not destroy the environment.

It is therefore no wonder that for his episcopal ordination last month, the 63-year-old Bishop planted 25 trees at St. Michael Catholic Mission in Mida, Kilifi, a remote mission in the Diocese of Malindi where he chose to celebrate his consecration.

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When he went back to the mission on April 13, on the grand launch of the tree-planting activity in the Diocese, Bishop Lagho was glad to note that the trees had registered 100 percent survival.

Dubbed “Church Forest,” the model tree plantation is aimed at inculcating the tree planting culture among communities in Kilifi and to educate the people of God on environmental conservation, Bishop Lagho told ACI Africa.

He noted that various Parishes of his Diocese have large tracts of land that is lying idle and which he said would otherwise be converted to forests instead.

The Bishop says that Pope Francis’s Encyclical Letter Laudato Si “on care for our common home” is “a greatest confirmation” of the challenges that the world faces today owing to the harm that is done on the environment.

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“I applaud the Church and especially Pope Francis for his commitment towards environmental conservation and how the practice trickles down to our Dioceses and Parishes,” said Bishop Lagho.

He added, “Christians err when they get more concerned about heaven and the hereafter instead of worrying about the here now. We need to start taking care of the earth as our common home especially for the coming generations.”

The “Church Forest” model is what Moses Mpuria, the Executive Secretary of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission of Kenya’s Malindi Diocese refers to as “a late response to the call by Catholic Bishops in Kenya to all Dioceses to plant trees.”

In 2018, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB), through Caritas Kenya, launched an environmental campaign to raise awareness on the steps that Kenyans should take to conserve the environment and address pollution. This initiative was marked by the planting of over 2,500 trees at the Shanzu teachers training college in the Archdiocese of Mombasa.

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“We didn’t know how to go about the project. We didn’t have the resources and the technical knowhow. That’s why it took us long to implement the call by the Kenyan Bishops” Mr. Mpuria told ACI Africa on April 13.

He added, “What we did was a little beautification in our parishes by planting grass and a few trees here and there. But all the time, we wanted to have something as big as what has just happened in Mida.”

Some two and a half acres of land were set aside some 500 metres from the Mission in Mida for the Church forest.

It is the same section of land that Fr. Martin Karigu, the Priest in charge of the Catholic mission, used to grow cassavas, green grams and maize for consumption at the mission.

Fr. Karigu was glad to give the chunk of land away “for an even greater purpose.”

“I realized that I don’t need the cassavas, the maize and the food I grew on the piece of land anymore. If I need food, my parishioners will be willing to share. It is better that this land becomes a forest for all to learn the importance of growing trees,” Fr. Karigu told ACI Africa April 13.

The Kenyan Cleric who was previously at the helm of Caritas Malindi said that Kilifi is one of the regions in Kenya where locals need most awareness on environmental conservation.

“People are crying everywhere because of the lack of rains. Today, our Bishop told us that forests and people are related and that when we cut down trees, we destroy the very core of our existence,” said Fr. Karigu.

Kilifi is especially notorious in charcoal burning, an activity that Fr. Karigu blames on the high poverty levels in the region.

“Residents of Kilifi are among Kenya’s poorest people and they rely solely on fishing and farming. But what they harvest is barely enough to last them long and so many resort to charcoal business. This has resulted in high levels of deforestation,” he says.

With the “Church Forest” model tree plantation, Caritas Malindi aims to plant over a million trees in various parishes of the Kenyan Diocese, the Cleric divulged.

About 100 parishioners participated in the planting of the 1,750 Arborea and Casuarina trees that were donated by the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) in Kilifi.

The partnership with the research institution was aimed at capacity building and to bring on board as many people as possible.

“We want to get the best seedlings, those with high survival rates and which have been expertly propagated,” Mr. Mpuria told ACI Africa.

KEFRI Kilifi Assistant Research Scientist, Gladys Ruto, on her part, said that the Church for its advocacy role in society would be instrumental in bringing many locals on board in the institute’s quest to improve forest cover in the coastal town.

The research institution, she said, had embarked on equipping locals with best technological practices in tree planting.

“We have done a lot of research on the tree species that can survive in this region and some technologies such as tree spacing to employ to ensure that the trees thrive. We’ll be happy to pass on this knowledge to the locals,” Ms. Ruto said, and added that the institution had produced the Soil Capability Map, a guide on planting commercial trees.

The choice of commercial trees is aimed at providing locals with alternative sources of livelihoods, Bishop Lagho said.

“When we tell the people to stop cutting down trees to burn charcoal, we have to give them something in exchange,” he said, and added, “What we are growing are commercial trees including fruit trees for locals to benefit from.”

In his tenure, the Bishop who has served Malindi Diocese for about 25 days (as of 13 April 2021) says that he aims to encourage the use of green energy to prevent charcoal burning in the region.

“We want to give people alternatives such as the use of solar and so, I am looking for partners who will help locals use the freely available sunshine to cook in their homes rather than rely on charcoal and firewood,” the Kenyan Bishop said, adding that the culture will also reduce the oppression of school going girls who, he said, waste a lot of time looking for firewood after school.

Meanwhile, Bishop Lagho said that his 25-day experience as the Local Ordinary of Malindi Diocese had been quite enriching.

“The highlight of my appointment has been the Holy Week and Easter celebrations with the St. Antony Cathedral, a very lively community,” Bishop Lagho told ACI Africa April 13.

He added, “I have also visited various groups of men, women and children in the Dioceses and I intend to visit all the parishes including the various outstations in our Diocese in the coming four months through the grace of God.”

“I will set aside days that I will celebrate Holy Masses in three different outstations on each day. I believe that it is only by understanding the terrain of our Parishes and outstations where our Priests work that we as Bishops are able to understand the Priests’ challenges when they come to us,” the Prelate who was ordained Bishop on the Solemnity of St. Joseph, March 19, told ACI Africa.