Access to Nairobi Arboretum & other public spaces should remain free

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Effective September 1st, 2016 you will now have to part with 50 bob to  access the Arboretum as an adult and 20 shillings for children. This charge was proposed by  Friends of  Nairobi Arboretum (FONA) and enforced by the Nairobi Arboretum  Management committee. It  has understandably caused an uproar and discord among Nairobi residents who do not understand why they have to pay to use a public amenity that should be maintained by government.

The amounts charged may appear trivial but there are those who would rightly argue that for those in the low income bracket this charge is unfair. This is because it puts an additional financial strain on them but also takes away from them some of the few luxuries that they can enjoy for free. The charges have also been abrupt, without discussion or inclusion of the general public. It is also interesting to note that the only mode of payment allowed is via M-Pesa. Yes, that’s right. You can only pay via M-Pesa which means that if you are on any other network or for whatever reason you do not have your phone with you,you are automatically locked out of the park. I was there on the weekend and there were many disgruntled people, most of whom were not aware of these charges and had to pay to get in. Others opted not to go in all together.

Following the directive, the group Our Arboretum drew up a petition with more than 100 signatures to halt the charges and possibly reverse them all together.They are also seeking audience with FONA to not only present the petition but find an amicable way forward.

The Kenya Forests Act (KFS) of 2005 ( Arboretum is under the Kenya Forestry Service) has various mandates some of which include; formulate for approval of the Board, policies and guidelines regarding the management, conservation and utilization of all types of forest areas in the country;  manage all state forests; collecting all revenue and charges due to the Government in regard to forest resources, produce and services; collaborate with other organizations and communities in the management and conservation of forests and for utilization of biodiversity therein;  promote the empowerment of associations and communities in the control and management of forests. FONA is a Community Forest Association who participate in forest conservation and management under the KFS.

The reasons being given for the charges by FONA seem valid. The say that the park needs not just facilities but manpower to handle waste management. They want to improve the amenities at the Arboretum which means more benches, shades, perhaps even a playground. They also want to improve and increase sanitation facilities such as toilets, which if you have been there is a major issue that needs to be urgently addressed. Security is also a major concern and they would like to fence off the place to deter criminals from using it as a hide out. Finally they need money to pay salaries for the people who help maintain the park.

However, in recent times there have been many  big events such as the Koroga Festival  held at the Arboretum. The organizers obviously  pay a tidy sum of money to use the grounds so the question is where does the money go? According to information on the Facebook page of Our Arboretum, the money is remitted to Kenya Forest Service who then allocate it to parks and forests that they feel are in more need. In as much as we can’t expect that KFS will use all the money collected in the Arboretum, it is only only fair that some of this money be used to maintain the space. Members of Our Arboretum  fear that the  revenue collected from the public could also possibly also go to the KFS and fail to maintain the park as intended.

The fact that this money collected is not allocated to the Aboretum has caused a strain mostly on FONA who have been looking after the park since the early 90s. Their attempt at reaching the public and educating them has not been effective due to the limited resources to create awareness not only on aims of the association, but also why the public needs to be proactive in preserving this space.

However, bigger picture here is not just about the Arboretum, but about other public spaces such as Uhuru Park, City Park, Karura forest and other green spaces outside Nairobi. Apart from increased cases of pollution mostly caused by the public, there is also the issue of ownership. City Park, located  in the Parklands area that used to be a recreational space but is now filthy and dangerous. On the site Friends of City Park you can see that there have been numerous attempts to grab the land that have been stopped through the group, actively lobbying against it. They are now actively working towards making it clean, having activities and inviting the public to help manage the park.

Karura Forest on its part has faced numerous land grabbing attempts since the 90s but through Wangari Maathai’s concerted efforts it is still in existence. Earlier this year there were fresh attempts to hive off a section of the land for developments but thanks to concerted efforts of Friends of Karura and the Green Belt Movement it has not taken place. The Friends of Karura are members of the community who are committed to the efficient running of the park. They have fees but these are chanelled back into the forest. It is clean, organised and is a great space to hold events.

The common thread in these cases is that it was mostly the communities around these places that effected change. The Kenya Forest Service has many challenges trying to preserve our forests across the country. Kakamega Forest is currently under siege due to illegal logging and it is understandable that in terms of priorities places such as Arboretum are not first on the list when it comes to allocation of money or resources. Truth be told FONA  have done well under the circumstances, and they have a  vision for the park to be a clean, fun safe space. However, the first thing that they should have been done is invite members of the public to talk about the charges. Perhaps then an alternative means of raising revenue aside from transferring the cost to the public would have been found. If no other solution were available then at least consensus would have be reached on the charges. This lack of consultation is what members of the public are up against.

On an individual level, you can become a member of these community forest associations and make financial contributions. If one is not able to contribute financially, one can always volunteer. The FONA website has listed a variety of ways in which you can help in running of the park. A blog post by Wandia Njoya sums it up: ’ It’s not neglect, but over-use, because of the sheer lack of adequate space in which Nairobians can relax. Kenyans need space. They need recreation.

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