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Kenyan forests and the challenge for a sustainable future

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Kenya is classified among the countries with low forest cover of less than 2% of the total land area. The forest cover has been decreased by 8% between 1981 – 1988, 7% percent in the 1990s and an additional 7% since 2000.

Kenya’s forests are rapidly declining due to pressure from increased population and other land uses.

Forests are rich in bio-diversity and hosts several indigenous tree species like Olea africana, Dombea goetzenii, Acacia spp, and Bamboo spp. among others. For example, Moist Montane Forest is characterized by a mixture of evergreen, semi-deciduous and deciduous trees, one of kind mixture in East Africa.

Kenyan forests are home to large animals such as the Bongo, Yellow backed Duiker, Golden cat, Giant forest hog, Leopard, Hyena, Buffalo, Colobus Monkey, and Impala. The Yellow backed Duiker, the Bongo, the Golden Cat, Leopard and Elephants are some of the important mammals of international conservation concern.

Causes for deforestation:

Local Level:

Cash crop farmers who grow crops and continue to increase the area under cultivation to be able to get more income. The local administration has been instrumental in allocating land to individuals without considering conservation issues.

National level

  • The Forest Department does not train their staff to recognize that role of indigenous knowledge in forest conservation.

· Political leaders are only interested in gaining mileage by giving people land so that they become popular.

· The long term effects of destroying the protected areas and are superseded by the interest in the economic gain.

Global level:

· The Industries and consumers in developed world promote the export of cash crops in bulk mainly in raw form for processing.

· Not even the structural adjustment programs of the World Bank have been oriented towards achieving sustainable environmental conservation. The business driven models imposed by the World Bank have encouraged intensive exploitation of forest land.

Factors that play a role in deforestation:

· The capitalistic nature of the global economy. Global trade and the market forces influence commodities to be produced for export.

· The industries in the developed countries require cheap raw materials from the developing countries. The Chinese state has been buying timber and cheap wood from Kenya for over five years. This has caused an increase in both legal and illegal deforestation

· Local politicians have been trying to gain quick profit through exploitation of land resources. This leads to plundering of resources in the get-rich-quickly culture.

Environmental impact of deforestation in Kenya

In 2006, UN Environment Programme has issued a warning to the Kenyan state that the relentless drought across East Africa is deepening because of global climate change as well as the continuing destruction of forests, grasslands, wetlands and other critical ecosystems. Klaus Toepfer, the then Executive Director of UNEP argued that “What has dramatically changed in recent decades is the ability of nature to supply essential services like water and moisture during hard times. This is because so much of nature’s water and rain supplying services have been damaged, destroyed or cleared.”

Another 2006 UNEP report stated that “Globally, something like 62 percent of precipitation occurs over land as a result of evapo-transpiration from lakes and wetlands and dense vegetation, in particular forests pumping water held in the soils, into the air. In comparison only around 38 percent of precipitation is generated over oceans and seas.” It is therefore implied that massive deforestation in East Africa is to blame for the extensive draught that has crippled the Kenyan economy and its agricultural potential.

The U.N. Climate Change Conference held in Nairobi in 2007 concluded that deforestation in developing countries such as those in Africa (and Kenya in particular) exacerbates the effects of climate change.

Last year, a new study titled Deforestation and Vectorial Capacity of Anopheles gambiae Giles Mosquitoes in Malaria Transmission, Kenya concluded that deforestation has affected the Microsystems in which the malaria parasites live thus causing the spread of malaria infected mosquitoes to areas that were traditionally not affected by malaria.

What could be done?

· Re-orienting decision makers on the need to involve local stakeholders in policy formulation has so far been unsuccessful.

· Policy intervention to ensure collaborative forest management and security of tenure is a must. But has yet to happen.

· There are talks that the management of the forest should be done by a board of trustees who are drawn from the various forest stakeholder groups.

· Harsh penalties on those destroying the forest should be applied. Unfortunately a forest ranger is paid 200 dollars a month. The demand for illegal deforestation means that rangers can easily be bribed to look the other way while patches of forest are taken down during the night.

· Advocacy at the Global level to sensitise the consumers and industries on accepting goods (forest products, cash crops) that are sustainably produced is a must.

· Promoting conservation of forests through sustainable harvesting of products and reforestation.

· Promoting activities that reduce the pressure off the forest like sericulture, butterfly farming, improved bee-keeping, development of fodder banks, bio-intensive agriculture and farm forestry.

· Monitoring physical/environmental changes with a view of counteracting the observed changes in order to enhance potential of the forest.

Current heated debates:

1. The Kenyan state, following the South African model is considering adopting culling as a way of protecting the forest. Culling is the process of removing animals from a group based on specific criteria by either moving them to another area or killing them. Given the ecological impact of elephants and black rhinos, should culling be implemented?

2. Following the 2004 flood that affected the lives of millions of Chinese on mainland China, the government has decided to stop deforestation nationwide and rely on raw imports. Given China’s interest in timber and logs, what can be done to stop the extensive deforestation acts throughout Kenya?

3. Wildlife corridors have been tampered with exposing the forest dwellers and forest neighbors to attacks from elephants. In order to clear land for cultivation or grazing, those intending to settle into the forest set the vegetation on fire. The fires spread extensively and cause a lot of damage to the forest biodiversity. But it has also been a practice for thousands of years especially implemented by people living in prairie ecosystems. What do you think should be done to both allow for agriculture to develop and protect the forest biodiversity?

4. There are no consistent forest policies and extensive corruption within the Kenyan state has also led to massive deforestation within the national reserves. What do you think are the best recommendations for the Kenyan state to implement?

PS: The causes for deforestation, the factors that play a role in deforestation and the what can be done sections have been taken from a World Rainforest Movement report available here. They are not divided in the same categories. Some changes to the original format and list have been made!