Dealing drugs, stealing from neighbors, and stirring up trouble – while these were once typical activities for a group of young men in rural central Kenya, an unexpected wave of betterment has transformed them into guardians of the forest. Trading crime for Mother Nature, members of Muiru Youth Reform Group from the village of Weru in the lowlands of Tharaka Nithi County, Kenya report suspicious activities of logging to the village authorities.

Cutting down trees in Kenya is illegal, but that isn’t stopping many loggers. The Muiru group is helping to change that. Using cell phones, members alert each other about activities of timber brokers or their suspected plans to cut down trees. Setting a common ringtone, they text the village chief, who then sends a scout to investigate.

As a reward for these good deeds, the county government offers them the opportunity to sell seedlings in new reforestation areas. The group runs a tree nursery on the banks of river Naka, selling seedlings amounting to approximately 20,000 Kenyan shillings (around 200$) on a good business day. Aiming to increase the forest cover in Kenya from 7%  to 10% by 2030, the Muiru group focuses their efforts on a green dream.

As reported by Thomas Reuters Foundation, one youth said, “This is better than when I would hide from the authorities for days as a drug peddler. I now use the skills I learned when I was doing bad things to outsmart the timber cartels.”

These activities have brought hope to many people in the village, as well. Doreen Cianjoka, a widow in Weru, had lost her trees to con men. Promising to find a buyer for her wood, they chopped down trees from the farm, separated timber and took it away without paying.

Cianjoka said, “The last I saw of them was as they said goodbye from the lorry that came to carry away my trees. I am hoping our young men and the chief will help me track these bad people one day.”

Unfortunately, the Muiru group has received some complaints from local businesses. Unable to collect timber, shop owner Justin Wanyanya of Jasho furniture store was forced to lay off many of his employees. Strict vigilance by the Muiru group is not the sole factor for this shortage; city development has led to increased demands for timber for construction. And despite the anti-logging laws, big construction businesses are able to lay their hands on trucks full of timber.

Suffering defeat due to competition, small scale businessman like Wanyanya or chainsaw operator Stephen Gitonga are unhappy with the law. Not able to earn enough income from his alternative job as a motorbike taxi driver, Stephen’s told Reuters, “The law is not fair, because big timber businesses are still benefiting when they supply materials for building.”

Still, the anti-timber law is necessary if there’s any hope of preserving the woods. Due to excessive logging, the forest cover of Kenya had been rapidly shrinking since the 1980s, and with no regulation could disappear. And the Muiru group is helping make sure Kenya stays green for generations to come.