Archive 2002


Forests excision could turn Kenya into desert

ISSUE No. 28 - JANUARY  2002

Perennial forest excisions in Kenya could in the near future convert the country into a desert.

Latest researches reveal gloom as authorities flounder on their cardinal responsibilities to conserve the remaining forests in the country.

Today there’s hue and cry over wanton destruction of forestland around Mt. Kenya and the Mau forest to the West of the country, both Key Water Catchments areas, known to anchor the livelihoods of millions of Kenyans.

The scenario is chilling given that it is mainly due to poor forest cover that Kenya has only less than 25% of its land arable and agriculturally productive. The rest is arid and semi-arid. And with the poor development of irrigation agriculture, the country’s almost 30 million strong population is precariously tied to dependance on this freeble rainfed agriculture.

Known so far is that the country has 9,116 km2 of forest reserves and 24,067 km2 National Parks too under forest cover. Of this, indigenous forests cover 2.1%, Plantation forest 3%, Woodland 3.7%, Bush land 42.9% while Wooded Grassland covers 18.5% of the total area of Kenya.

In addition, Magrove covers 1%, grassland covers 2.1%.

Kenya’s full desert is 13.7% of the total area while farmland and urban development covers 16.5%. But the desert threatens to expand due to the chain of excisions for human settlement and widespread legalized and illegal timber logging and processing.

Real forested land with closed canopies cover only 2% of Kenya and are found in the central highlands, the Nyarica plateau and other isolated areas to the west of Nairobi. 106 hectares, which is 88% of the canopy forestland, is indigenous forests. It is this natural forest whose extinction spells doom for much of the country as it is found on fertile agricultural soils, which many want to convert to farming and do not replace them.

Kenya’s area under forest reserves is 1.64 million hectares with indigenous forests occupying 64:63% of the land. Plantation forests occupy 0.16 million hectares only 9.7% while non-forests vegetations in the reserves take some 0.42 million hectares (25.61%).

Forest reserves on government land are under the management of the forest department while for long, those on trust land are managed by local authorities.

Apart from the current hullabaloo over the planned excision of some 2,000 acres of Mt. Kenya forest to resettle 1,088 squatters in Meru District who are being transferred from Nyayo Settlement in the area, the story of excisions and forest alienation across the country dates back to pre-independence days.

For decades it has been known that Wood poachers (Loggers), forest officials and protected politicians have been competing to harvest trees in forests across the country for conversion to personal commercial benefits.

This has gone on with very limited checks despite the fact that the forests are under state protection and management by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the forest department. It has been noted in the past that when transferring Management responsibilities from the forest department to the KWS, modalities take long and often have created room for forest destruction by poachers and encroachers who even start illegal settlements.

From experiences in the juxtaposed management around the Mt. Kenya forest, it has been noted that the forest department is better placed to manage forest in the country than the KWS. That the KWS is not prepared for effective management yet the powers that be prefer to entrust it with the task than the Forest Department.

Research reveals that the forestry department generates hundreds of millions of shillings annually for the treasury, but little is ploughed back for operations and capacity building like patrols, enforcement and replanting. For instance, most vehicles in forest stations have been grounded for over a decade with foresters and guards conducting patrols on foot.

To the west of the Country, gloom too engulfs the future of the vital Mt. Elgon forest. The forest, which is a great source of water for the highly productive Trans Nzoia, Bungoma, Lugari and North Rift areas, is fast loosing great chunks of vital indigenous forests around Chepyuk, Kitalale and Chiptoro areas which are now replaced with Maize Plantations.

An earlier report by a local NGO: the Mt. Elgon Integrated Conservations and Development estimated that the local community have illegally excised over 5000 hectares of Chepyuk forest, over 2000 hectares of Kitalale forest all which they’d turned into farms and that hundreds of acres in Kaboywo forest had been cleared and converted to cultivation of wheat.

The crisis around Mt.Elgon, has for long generated hot disagreements between administrators, politicians and local communities. A key timber processing company Raiply has variously featured in the feuds.

The destruction of trees in this forest has seen the near extinction of 300 years old various tree species and the greatly valued Elgon Teak. Forest guards are feared to be top culprits for colluding with illegal loggers in felling and transportation of trees. These collusions and conspiracies to destroy trees has also involved chiefs and villagers thus making forests management difficult.

Another top forest crisis is facing the Mau forests. There have been recent plans to degazette almost 60,000 hectares of the Mau forest complex. Of these, 43,000 hectares were to be from the South West Mau forest while the other over 13,000 hectares were to be from east Mau Forest.

According to the NGO: Forest Action Group, the degazettement would provide the biggest chunk of land to be excised in any single year anywhere in the country.

The destruction of the Mau forest complex could generate a calamity of enormous proportions. The forest complex forms the upper catchments of key water sources notably rivers: Sondu, Mara (for Maasai Mara National Reserve), Yala, Nzoia, Nyando, Kerio and Victoria and Natron among others. It is worth noting that lake Natron to the main breeding site for the over 2 million flamingoes found in the Rift Valley.

The same forest complex also comprises the entire catchments area of lake Nakuru the famous home to the largest population of flamingoes in the World and which is also recognized internationally as an important Westland’s for Water fowl and is listed as a Ramsarsite.

Deductions from past national census reveal that waters flowing from the Mau complex passes through over 500 sub-locations, where an estimated 5 million (today) people live. Covering 320, hectares which is 25% of the remaining forest reserves in the country, the complex waters serves western Kenya highlands, lakes Turkana, Victoria, Baringo, Natron and top tourist attractions.

Already there’s big debate in Kenya and disagreements over where the real causes of forest destruction lies. There are those blaming the government and those blaming land seekers among the general public neighbouring the key forests.

However, much of the let ups are rooted in constitutional mistakes. The country’s Forest Act, Cap 385 of 1962 (revised in 1982 and l992) is the one guiding the handling of forests in Kenya. It is this Act that needs to be "reformed".

Under section 15 of the Act, the minister in charge has power to make, rules with respect to sale and disposal of forest products; use and occupation of land; licensing and entry into forests. The forest rules set forth rules for the sale of forest produce and specifies royalty rates for these products.

The Forest (General) Order rules were last updated in July 1998. Under them, Community utilization of forests for subsistence are included under "Miscellaneous Forest Products" which include fuel wood, grazing and medicinal plants, among others. Though these products can be exploited by acquiring a permit from the local foresters to a point of becoming a liability.

Section 4 of the Act allows for the degazettement of forest reserves. Under it the minister may from time to time by notice in the gazette, declare any unalienated government land to be a forest area; declare the boundaries of a forest and from time to time alter those boundaries and declare that a forest area shall cease to be a forest area. A 28 days notice is to be published by the minister before a declaration is made.

It is indeed with these sweeping powers in Section 4 that the government has kept defying protests by environmentalists, and from time to time authorizes widespread excisions for flimsy excuses including human resettlement.

Besides, Commercial logging, quarrying and leaseholds in forest reserves are acquired through licensing with the approval from the Divisional Forest Licensing Committee, the District and Provincial Environment Committees upto the ministry level.

All the above have only proved to be avenues for extortion and other forms of corruption by the officers charged with dishing out the selective permissions to exploit forest resources. For it, forests continue to be destroyed with abandon.

What is worrying most is the fact that re-afforestation is almost non-existent. Only the Pan African Paper Mills (Pan-paper) one of the two leading licensed tree exploiters, appear to have aforestation programmes. The rest just exploits and disappear leaving behind barren land, defiled and exposed to the vagaries of the weather, including erosion and subsequent desertification.

Initial government afforestation drives which had been invigorated by the head of state himself in the 1980s and championed by the politicians and administrators in the Motto: "Ukikata Mti Mmoja, Panda Mbili’, are long forgotten. No new tree nurseries are in place, save for isolated ones run by individual seedlings vendors and other commercial and research concerns.

A government initiative to zone off forests using rings of Tea plantation that was started in the 1980’s under the Nyayo Tea Zones banners, has come a cropper only after two decades. Today it has crumbled and may never be revived; neither can it be made sustainable.

The other problem contributing to deforestation is mining. It is covered in the mining Act Cap. 306 of 1940 (revised 1987). According to the Act, with the approval of the minister, mining can be allowed in both gazetted and non-gazetted forest areas. Here, there is no legal requirement for the re-afforestation of the abandoned mining area. For example, quarrying has been going on in many forests with the best example being in Oloolua forest reserve, and protests from adjacent communities have been overlooked. Even intervening court orders have been hard to enforce.

The other havoc is caused by human settlement. An estimated 3 million Kenyans accounting for approximately 530,000 households live within 5kms of closed canopy forest areas, and depend on forests to provide both wood and non-wood products, including medicinal plants, honey, thatching grass and fodder.

These forest communities are known to live in abject poverty. This is not conducive to forest conservation as it is known that poverty and environmental concerns are intertwined and need simultaneous addressing.

Legal and illegal logging by well-connected people has driven some communities living adjacent to forests into rebellion. They have encroached on forests arguing that the benefits from the forests accrue more to "outsiders" through a licensing process that edits them out.

In all this one clearly sees the development of a vicious circle of factors, which build up to devour the remaining forest cover.

Excision of forests and encroachments continue to be a source of concern. Environmentalists and keen observers fear that Kenyans are setting and sitting on a time bomb that will explode in time with severe ramifications.

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