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Chapter 4: Tree cultivation and management practices

4.1 Tree tenure
4.2 Trees as boundary markers
4.3 Protected forests and woodlands
4.4 Other tree management practices
4.5 Summary: Trees as part of traditional land use practices

Land tenure processes have long been closely associated with tree cultivation and management practices. In some cases, tree production was the primary objective. In other instances, cultivation was more concerned with traditional land tenure practices such as boundary demarcation. Forest cover was also used to protect and fortify villages. At the household-level, trees and woody biomass served similar purposes of protection and boundary demarcation and was also used for livestock management. Finally, trees played a vital role in religious practices and were an abundant source of medicines and food (Gachathi 1990).

4.1 Tree tenure

As with other features of the sub-clan land holding system, rights of use to naturally-growing trees on a right holder's plot belonged to him and to his household, while rights of use to trees on unallocated portions of the sub-clan holding belonged to the sub-clan as a whole. Permission to fell these trees had to be obtained from the sub-clan leader, but as long as unallocated bushland remained, there were few supply problems.

In Murang'a and Nyeri Districts, a person who obtained land through redeemable sale (muguri) had no right to cut down the trees on the plot. Trees were actually inventoried at the time of the sale, and if the muguri wished to cut any of them, they had to be purchased from the original owner. Sometimes he was allowed to cut them as gifts. The cutting of trees without payment or permission, however, was an offense for which fines were assessed. New trees which grew up after the time of the sale belonged to the muguri, and he could do with them as he wished. Similar conditions applied to temporary and resident tenants; they were not able to cut down existing trees. In Kiambu, when land was sold outright, the trees growing on the plot were always included in the sale (Colony and Protectorate of Kenya 1929a:28-29).

A Case Study from Murang'a District, Kenya

Planted trees belonged to whomever planted them, as long as they held some sort of cultivation right. When land lending or tenancy agreements were cancelled, or when land was redeemed, rights to planted trees were relinquished (although the trees could be disposed of until the time the lineage right holder regained possession) (Ainsworth undated:501). Even by the late 1920s, the ownership of wattle woodlots or other permanent crops was posing problems for the tenure system because the crop owners were not necessarily the land owners (Fazan undated).

Similarly, coppiced production belonged to whomever held cultivation rights. A number of trees were particularly appreciated for their coppicing qualities, and were planted as timber species. These included muuu (Markhamia hildebrandtii) and mukuhakuha (Macaranga kilimandscharica) which were both profusely coppicing timber species. Coppiced trees would be allowed to grow on cultivated land, as well as in hedges and windrows. The Routledges, amongst the earliest of the social scientists to carry out ethnographic studies of the Kikuyu in Nyeri, reported that they commonly observed coppiced stems up to 20 feet in height on farmland (Routledge and Routledge 1910:39).

4.2 Trees as boundary markers

Demarcation of the sub-clan land boundary

Trees were commonly used to demarcate the boundaries of sub-clan lands. They were actually a departure from the norm but later came to be preferred because they provided greater visibility. Certainly as population pressures increased in Murang'a and other parts of Kikuyu country, tree planting around boundaries became the accepted practice.

The customary method of marking out sub-clan land boundaries involved the planting of the Pajama Lily (Crinum kirkii) by the hereditary sub-clan right holder or by representatives of the sub-clan who held lineage rights to it. The 1929 Committee on Native Land Tenure in Kikuyu Province noted that boundaries in Murang'a and Nyeri were not fully marked in the days when the sub-clan land holding was a hunting area, but that they were sufficiently well-established to allow for proper marking when the occasion arose (Colony and Protectorate of Kenya 1929a:19). Natural features such as streams, prominent trees, game pits, and so on served as boundary markers in the meantime.

The marking out of sub-clan land boundaries was done as cultivation became widespread. It was often the result of land disputes, but was also undertaken simply as a means of preventing future conflicts. It was to be done in the presence of witnesses and representatives of the sub-clan which owned the land adjacent to the plot in question. Witnesses would be asked to bring large numbers of the Pajama Lily, which could only be removed from already well-established boundaries by senior elders. A specific ceremony accompanied the marking and involved the ritual slaughter of a ram at the sub-clan land boundary at which also bundles of leaves of the muthakwa bush (Vernonia auriculifera) were used. In some areas. large stones would be buried where the lilies were planted. In the event that the lilies died out over time, boundary disputes could be resolved by using the stones (Fazan undated). There was little fear that a person would willfully destroy boundary plants, as the Kikuyu believed that such a person would die almost immediately (Leakey 1977:108).

Fig. 4.1 Pajama Lily (Crinum kirkii) as a boundary marker (Kiambu District, late 1950s)

Photo: Ministry of Agriculture

Pajama Lily plantings along sub-clan land boundaries were seldom in continuous strips. Rather, lilies would be planted at irregular intervals, and it would not always be immediately clear that they were contiguous with boundaries (Kenyatta undated:433) Before death the lineage right holder or the sub-clan leader would show the boundaries to his heirs in the presence of elders and other witnesses. In this way, lineage rights were passed from generation to generation (Fazan undated).

While the Pajama Lily was the usual boundary marker, a number of trees and bushes were accepted as substitutes. The planting of trees became considerably more common as the need for clearer boundaries to sub-clan land became evident. Trees were planted at irregular intervals, as well as in what would now be called windrows and hedges. This process was apparently well underway by the time of European settlement. The Routledges wrote about sub-clan land holdings in 1910:

The boundary of the estate.... was indicated by the planting of trees in line, by regular hedges, and by boundary stones sunk deep out of site.... The countryside presents the appearance of large allotments or of small fields divided by hedges. (Routledge and Routledge 1910:6,39).

Trees which were used as sub-clan land boundaries included mugumo (Ficus natalensis), (Kenyatta undated:433) mwatha (Synadenium compactum) (Wangana undated: 185), muiri (Prunus africanum), mukawa (Carissa edulis) (Fazan undated), and muringa (Cordia africana). With the exception of P.africanum and C.edulis, these trees could be propagated from cuttings which made boundary demarcation fairly easy. They were also easy to identify. F.natalensis, for instance, is still widely recognized as a fast-growing tree. It was often the site of important ceremonies. If it could be prevented, F.natalensis was never allowed to naturally regenerate. If a tree of this species was found growing somewhere, one inevitably had to assume that it had been planted for some reason.

Other boundary trees were also easy to spot. S.compactum is distinctive for its red leaves and latex. P.africanum is a tall tree with numerous medicinal properties and has extremely hard timber which was used for mortars, pestles and farm implements. C.edulis is one of a number of thorny species that can form a dense hedge. It is used mainly for boundaries to household plots and for cattle enclosures. C.africana, a tall timber tree, has profuse white flowers, and is valued for shade, timber, and its medicinal properties.

S.H. Fazan, the District Commissioner for Kiambu in the early 1930s, noted that in some instances, the boundary of the sub-clan holding would be marked by coppiced and pollarded tree stumps rather than by planted trees,

... that is to say they cut off the tree itself and leave the bushy growth to spring from the root. I saw several of these, and in one place they have the general appearance of having been planted in a row. (Fazan undated:960)

The Forest Department, wittingly or not, adopted the practice of boundary demarcation with trees. In 1933, it was reported that the boundaries to the Forest Reserves were being demarcated "by cut or ploughed lines, marked by posts, or exotic trees planted at intervals." (FD 1933). The planting of Reserve boundaries with exotic trees by the Colonial government must certainly have held some significance to the Kikuyu who had always used their own trees for marking out their own boundaries.

The customary demarcation of sub-clan lands with Pajama Lilies and with trees was first widely discussed during the hearings before the Kenya Land Commission in 1933. The Commission frequently asked European witnesses whether or not they had ever noticed boundaries planted with the lily. The reply was invariably that the lilies were reasonably common, but that they were seldom found planted in straight lines as if they were marking out boundaries (Leakey undated:857, Ainsworth undated:497,508). Because of this, the Commission basically refused to settle the many pending land cases which involved European farms on the basis of lily boundary markers, even though the Administration had earlier explicitly recognized this feature of traditional land tenure (Colony and Protectorate of Kenya 1929). The irregular planting of lilies along boundaries was perhaps the biggest difficulty in establishing land claims in the face of colonial settlement.

Additionally, land disputes had become far more common, particularly after the Kenya Land Commission had made it clear that land would not be available for the future settlement of Africans. Tree planting along boundaries assumed new importance as a means of unequivocally identifying the limits of a right holder's land. The ceremony of marking out sub-clan land boundaries with Pajama Lilies died out over time, but the practice of demarcation remained and was encouraged by the Colonial Administration. The 1929 Report of the Committee on Land Tenure in Kikuyu Province, for instance, made a series of recommendations for including boundary marking practices in rules proposed under the Native Lands Trust Ordinance (Fazan undated). The report recommended:

...that only Mugumu trees and Pajama Lilies should be used for marking the boundaries of a Githaka...; [that] it should be made unlawful for [them] to be planted in lines in any place other than on a Githaka boundary; [and that] it should be lawful for any native authority to issue orders that any Mugumu trees or Pajama Lilies which may be found to have been planted in lines in any place other than a recognized Githaka boundary be removed.

The Chief Native Commissioner, G.V. Maxwell, incorporated the recommendations in a set of draft rules, which also specified that it would be an offense to plant F.natalensis and Pajama lilies on any boundary which was not a sub-clan boundary (Fazan undated). This basically meant that where homestead (as opposed to sub-clan) boundaries were to be demarcated, other species would have to be used. Of course the outcome of enclosure of the type envisaged by Maxwell and others would have been some sort of agreement that Africans could privately own land, and this was simply not acceptable either to the Colonial authorities or to the European farmers whose position depended on their monopoly land-owning rights. Not surprisingly, the Committee's recommendations were never implemented. It would take another 25 years before Africans could privately own land and before hedges had any sort of legal standing.

Boundary demarcation with exotic trees gradually became the norm. Trees such as eucalyptus and black wattle were sometimes planted in rows by themselves or in conjunction with indigenous trees over the spots where Pajama Lilies had originally been planted (Wangana undated: 185, Karanja undated: 145).

Boundary demarcation was a critical part of the consolidation and registration process. Ultimately, hedges became a legal requirement for land registration. The Land Consolidation Act (Cap.283), for instance, notes that,

The Demarcation Officer may order any demarcate his land, and for the purpose of such demarcation, to erect or plant...such boundary markers as the said officer may direct.

The reasoning was primarily that they were visible from the air, and could be used for mapping out consolidated holdings from aerial photographs (Wright 1956:39). Because of the speed with which it was deemed necessary to map out and register the plots, it was desired as well that hedges were fast growing.

Trees on other boundaries

Tree planting practices for demarcating sub-clan land boundaries were different from the practices that were adopted for marking other boundaries. It is important to also distinguish between boundary demarcation practices and functional or protective hedge establishment practices (Leakey 1977:1286-1354).

Sub-divisions within the sub-clan land holding were often marked out. The species which predominated in these boundaries were usually utilitarian in nature. Muuu (M.hildebrandtii), for instance, was commonly planted along the boundaries of sub-clan land holding subdivisions. It is an obvious tree with bright yellow flowers, but is especially useful in that it coppices easily and can be cropped many times for pole wood. It easily regenerates from cuttings. Mukungugu (C.zimmermannii) shares these characteristics. Young trees of this species are still frequently found in many shambas where they are used to support climbing plants. Old sub-clan land holding subdivisions can still be identified where these trees, which grow as high as 20 metres, are found.

Around fortified villages near the border of Kikuyu country, it was common practice to fell trees and bushes into a barrier, and then to encourage thorny plants to grow around it or noxious creepers to climb over it to make the barrier impenetrable. Plants such as mutanda mbogo (Pterolobium stellatum), muyuyu (Chaetacme aristata), muuti (Aspilia spp.), and mukawa (Carissa edulis) were used to create these barriers.

Fig. 4.2 Entrance to a fortified Kikuyu village Murang'a District, around 1907.

Photo: Consolata Fathers Turin

Hedges would usually be planted around homesteads. Inevitably, there was some specific utility to the planted hedge - for medicinal uses, as a famine food, for fodder, or for food. Muthakwa wa aathi (Crassocephalum mannii), the leaves of which have medicinal value, falls into this category and is still one of the most frequently found indigenous hedge species in Kikuyu country, particularly in Kiambu District. Other hedge species include mutigoya (Plectranthus barbatus) whose leaves are used to help ripen bananas. Mutbage (Caesalpinia decapetala) is native to Mauritius, but has been in Kenya for a long time and is widely planted as a hedge.

Within the homestead, Muhndahnda (Trimeria tropica) and mutkandu (Lantana sp. or Lippia sp.) were commonly planted as boundaries between huts. The former was primarily used for making household implements. The berries of the latter were used as a famine food.

A frequent assumption on the part of the Colonial Administration was that enclosures of these types were an outcome of Kikuyu contact with European farming (Government of the United Kingdom 1955:24). In fact, others who noted the presence of these enclosures during the earliest stages of European settlement, particularly Leakey and the Routledges, confirm that these practices were in place long before Africans were exposed to Europeans.

4.3 Protected forests and woodlands

Timber reserves

Timber and fuelwood needs were met from a combination of sources: planted trees or trees which were naturally growing on plots and trees on unallocated sub-clan land. Leakey noted that the sub-clan would sometimes explicitly protect good forest stands for the long-term and sustainable production of timber (Leakey 1977:123). The Routledges similarly confirmed the presence of small copses which had been preserved for timber production and which could not be used without permission and until payment had been made to a chief, or to the sub-clan elders (Routledge and Routledge 1910:39).

The Karura Forest Reserve, as well as City Park in Nairobi were originally traditional forest reserve areas. As late as 1904, the Karura forest was recognized as one of the few remaining stands that acted as a buffer between the Maasai and the Kikuyu (Battiscombe undated:411). It was gazetted as a Reserve in 1912. There are several traditional (and now gazetted) reserve forests remaining in Murang'a District, such as the Marimira Forest, as well as numerous small forested parcels of obscure origins and with unclear tenure and use rights.

The Murang'a Local Native Council took the concept of the traditional forest reserve one step further and claimed in testimony before the Land Commission in

1933 that "the whole of the forest reserve was reserved by Kikuyu for the purpose of obtaining trees for building, for herding, and for firewood for the present and future generations." (Fort Hall Local Native Council undated:119).

Without any doubt, government reservation of large areas of forests conflicted with the sub-clan's traditional rights of control. The process of creating Forest Reserves, in itself, destroyed any traditional control the sub-clan may have had over the largest chunks of forests. As soon as it became clear that forests were being placed under Forest Department control, the tendency was to overexploit the remaining pockets of woodlands.

The Colonial Administration recognized two types of forests. Forest Reserves, under the control of the Forest Department and Native Reserve Forests, which were technically under the control of Local Native Councils, but which in practice were often managed by the Forest Department. Under the Native Lands Trust Ordinance, any lands in Native Reserves could be gazetted as Native Reserve Forests on the recommendation of the Native Lands Trust Board, even in the face of local opposition. By the time of the Kenya Land Commission, many of the remaining pockets of woodlands had disappeared and "in many reserves...there [was] little left to preserve." (FD 1933:21) In Machakos District, for instance, it was noted that by 1935, any forests had long ago been destroyed (FD 1935: 35).

The reservation of forests within the Native Reserves caused difficulties because it changed the controlling authority from the sub-clan to the Local Native Council, which had little traditional authority. The Forest Department claimed that opposition would generally disappear

"... when local people are reassured that the forests still to belong to them, and that their old privileges of honey collection, gathering dead and fallen fuel and forest fruits, etc., will not be interfered with so long as they do no harm to the forests, and that finally they will receive any profits that accrue." (FD 1934:21).

It was an obvious contradiction for the Forest Department to claim that traditional rights of access would be recognized in the absence of a traditional authority with rights of control.

Sacred groves

The other category of woodland that was preserved by the sub-clan were sacred groves. These were quite small clusters of trees, usually dominated by a mugumu (Ficus natalensis) or a mukuyu (Ficus sycomorus) tree, which were the sites of rituals and ceremonies. The extent of these sites is uncertain, but they were believed to be fairly widespread. They had very strong religious and cultural associations.

Trees had their own spirits. Leakey maintained that when an area of forest had been cleared for cultivation, a number of big trees would be left standing at intervals. Such trees were called murema kiriti (the trees that resisted the cutting of the forest) and these trees became the dwelling places of the spirits of all the trees that had been felled. The murema kiriti were not normally felled, but in the event that they became old and were in danger of falling or needed to be felled for timber, a ceremony would be carried out in order to ask the resident spirits to move their abode. In the event an old tree was felled, a young tree would be planted to replace it (FD 1934:1117-1118).

As a result of the Kenya Land Commission, there had been an offer to relocate some of the Kiambu Kikuyu on to land belonging to the Nyeri Kikuyu. Senior Chief Koinange wa Mbiyu, writing in a letter, objected to the Governor General, H.M. Brooke-Popham:

"We can never agree to the Kiambu people to take land of Nyeri people. Furthermore, a large bulk of African people still retain their ancient religious rites and belief that to be removed from their trees, ceremonies and graves of their ancestors is to be suddenly torn in their spiritual body. (Quoted in Brooke-Popham 1939).

A sacred tree, standing alone or in a grove, was chosen as the site for clan and sub-clan ceremonies and sacrifices. They were not permanent fixtures, but were only associated with the ruling generation of the clan or sub-clan. A sacred F.natalensis or F.sycomorus tree only had this status for the duration that a particular age grade was in control. It would be uprooted upon the appointment of a new ruling age grade, and a new F.natalensis would be chosen in its place. These trees had to have been planted, but not necessarily by someone in the age grade nor at the time of the appointment of the new ruling age grade. Generally, preference was given to a F.natalensis which was parasitic on another tree (Leakey 1977:1078-1089).

Fig. 4.3 Sacred tree, probably a variety of Ficus. (Murang'a District, 1910)

Photo: Consolata Fathers, Turin

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