In 2006 a toothless goat made legal history in Kenya – and headlines around the world – when it appeared in court as part of a bid to sue the government over a plant deliberately introduced a few decades earlier to help rural communities adapt to drought. That plant became an invasive alien weed, and it is still causing havoc to this day in the country’s drylands.
The goat had no teeth because it had fed on the corrosively sweet pods of Prosopis juliflora, a drought-resistant, deep-rooted evergreen shrub of Central American origin also known in parts of Kenya as mathenge and, in the Turkana language, as etirai.
Although the judge in the 2006 trial threw out the case – one of several similar lawsuits – prosopis has not gone away and is now making life even harder for livestock herders in Turkana County as they contend with one of the worst droughts in living memory.
“When I was growing up, there was no etirai; there was rain and grass,” recalled Ekaru Lopetet at the livestock market in Lodwar, the main town in Turkana County.
“It has really invaded our pastureland. There is nothing we can do to get rid of it – you have to uproot it, which is very hard work, because if you just cut it back, it grows stronger, and it absorbs a lot of water… I don’t know how to defeat it.”
Johnstone Moru, an advisor on climate change issues to the county government in Turkana, told IRIN the plant “colonises pasture and consumes a lot of water”.
“It flourishes even in the dry season, so areas that used to have water are drying up,” he explained. “Elimination is hard because the seeds are spread by wind and animals.”
Ewoton Epeot, a Turkana woman in her 70s who still farms a plot of land near the village where she grew up, described how the latter works.
“When the pod matures, the animals eat it and the seeds pass through them and are deposited in their droppings,” she told IRIN. “Prosopis then grows in our fields amid our crops.”
A paper published this year on the economy of Turkana County described Prosopis juliflora as “one of the most destructive invader plant species in the world”.
From solution to invasion
Yet just a few decades ago, the plant was seen as more of a solution than a problem.
This was chiefly because, being a fast-growing evergreen that produced timber and was a good source of shade and apparently good fodder, it seemed an ideal candidate for the rehabilitation of depleted environments in Kenya’s arid regions.
Prosopis juliflora was deliberately introduced to the Turkana and Barongo districts of Kenya in the 1980s and 1990s.
But before long many of the plant’s shortcomings became apparent, as a paper published in 2011 in the journal Biodiversity explained.
“Once in the soil, seeds can lie dormant for long, till good conditions return. Prosopis is deep-rooted and coppices well when cut above ground. These factors make it highly invasive and hard to control once established,” it noted.
By the early 2000s, Prosopis was found in seven of Kenya’s eight provinces.
“It was more aggressive in arid lands of the north where it formed thorny impenetrable thickets especially along water courses, flood plains, roadsides and in inhabited areas. It was encroaching upon paths, dwellings, irrigation schemes, crop farms and pastureland, significantly affecting biological diversity and rural livelihoods,” the paper added.
A survey of Kenyans in affected areas conducted by the paper’s authors found that while residents mentioned 18 positive attributes of Prosopis, these were outweighed by 24 negative factors, including invasion of pastureland, cropland, and homesteads, and the harmful effects of the plant’s thorns.
“It was evident that in areas where Prosopis was well established, it was beyond the community's ability to control its expansion. Prosopis invasion had reduced the capacity of pastoralists to keep large herds of livestock in affected areas,” the paper said.
The Turkana county government’s investment plan barely mentions Prosopis, beyond suggesting it “may be a blessing in disguise and should be sustainably exploited for commercial production of charcoal, animal fodder and bio-fuel”.
Such exploitation has successfully taken place in other parts of the world where Prosopis is also prevalent.
The International Livestock Research Institute, in a 2007 paper about climate change adaptation in Kenya’s arid lands, noted that the plant had in some countries been incorporated into agroforestry systems, producing not only firewood and charcoal, but also tannins and dyes from its bark, and medicinal preparations. It also noted its use in Mexico to produce a coffee substitute, flour, sweet syrup, even an alcoholic drink.
“Prosopis is known to enhance soil quality and structure, can be used to control erosion and can be planted as shelter belts and live fences,” the paper added.
In Kenya also, some projects exist to turn Prosopis into a resource. With support from the UN and a local NGO, residents around a refugee camp near the Turkana town of Kakuma are making charcoal from the plant using high-efficiency kilns, and then selling the charcoal, which is distributed to the most needy of the camp’s 180,000 residents. For years, the camp’s huge demand for cooking fuel led to rampant deforestation.
But the county government’s five-year plan acknowledged that scaling up the sustainable utilisation of Prosopis would require significant investment in the most impoverished and marginalised regions of Kenya.
For the time being, as Sylvester Sulu of Tupado, a local NGO, put it to IRIN, the plant remains “a major blow”.
“It is everywhere,” he explained. “If you look at this place from a plane, it looks green [but] the grass can’t get to grow.”
Back at the market in Lodwar, Lopetet knows Prosopis pods get stuck in his goats’ teeth, making them weak so they rot and fall out, but he feeds them to them regardless – 90 of the 100 goats he used to own have died in recent months for lack of water and food.
“We don’t give the animals this very often,” he said. “But because of the drought, there is little else to eat.”