Archive 2003


Thursday, January 16, 2003

How Govt destroyed our forests


In the 1960s, undergraduates in Canada, Britain and Nigeria – where many of Kenya’s foresters were trained – were often referred to our forests as examples of good management. 

Kenya’s Forest Policy Statement of 1968 was a model for most undergraduate studies. Our Shamba System was rated superior to the slash-and-burn systems of afforestation practised in many tropical countries. Ours was described as a modern form of agroforestry.

Fast-growing trees of enormous industrial benefits were being cultivated by peasants who fed well, lived well and produced surplus food for sale.

Out of only 170,000 hectares of plantation wood, we were able to meet the nation’s needs in timber, paper, plywood, chipboards, softboards, hardboards, blockboards and many other industrial forestry products. 

We also produced for the export market. We were the darling of donors and our forestry development was secure.

The environmental wave that swept the world in the 1970s began affecting Kenya in the early 1980s. It began with everyone giving prescriptions on environmental care, which slowly reached the higher levels of Government and was translated into policy statements.

Ill-conceived or dead wrong

Thus the 1980s and early 1990s were characterised by bans on many forest activities. Bamboo cutting was banned, as was charcoal burning. Indigenous forest timber logging was the next casualty followed closely by a ban on harvesting exotic trees. Then followed sawmills in forests and even forest villages. 

The muhugu tree, so useful for wood carvings, was not spared and even felling trees in peasant shambas had to be authorised by chiefs. Police impounded timber in transit and charcoal was regarded as contraband.

On the face of it, these environmental strictures appeared well- meaning. But most were ill-conceived and some dead wrong. They had serious silvicultural, social, economic and conservation flaws that have now led to wanton destruction of forests. 

A forest estate that the whole world commended for its capacity to supply Kenyans with all the wood products they needed can no longer do this.

What foresters call Malaysian Selection Systems have successfully been used in tropical forestry management for millennia. They simply involve the harvesting of mature trees and vegetation from forests. 

Merchantable girth limits and other growth indices are set to determine what is to be harvested. This activity frees space for saplings to grow. 

If done properly, natural forests provide spatula, piping material, tooth picks, baskets and hats made from bamboo and scaffolding, as in India. 

Similarly, mature camphor, Meru oak, cedar, Elgon teak, muhugu and chrolophora are cut and the people get furniture, veneer, wooden carvings – and employment, ready cash and foreign exchange – at no risk to water and soil conservation.

What is required is a sober approach guided by Environmental Protection Assessments [EPAs], not political demagoguery. 

Ban charcoal, if you must, but then provide paraffin, as is done in Burkina Faso. Our country, with unparalleled tree growth rates, can do better with firewood cropping and efficient charcoal kilns.

It is true that our Shamba System had its faults, particularly when some populations in forest villages became too large, cultivation areas dwindled and farmers started encroaching on steep erodible areas. 

We listened to forestry heresy

Demand and grazing licensing that outstripped the carrying capacities of certain forests, was the other area of concern. 

However, Nepal, with far more rugged and hilly land than ours, conducts its khejri – a form of shamba system – using terracing, contour banking and other elementary soil conservation methods.

The Philippines provides proper titles to forest dwellers and fertilisers for food and trees.

The irony in our case is that we host the headquarters of ICRAF, a world NGO which conducts research into agro-forestry. 

Most of the world’s examples on how trees, people, food, cash crops, livestock, fish, bees and wild animals coexist on the same land parcel are available.

Yet we went ahead and listened to forestry heresy that peasant farmers, sawmills, forest villages, forest plantations and literally all forest activities were to cease from gazetted forests "to save the environment"! 

In the 1990s plantation forestry in Kenya actually collapsed forestry authority virtually died. It soon became a free-for-all. 

The Chief Conservator, who was supposed to keep custody of and develop the forest estate, was relegated to the duties of an automaton to be told what forest licences to give and what areas of forest to hive off. 

Using the Forest Act [Cap 385], he destroyed all forests and forestry development. The forest villages were no more. So were the large saw-milling concerns that had hitherto employed large numbers of people. 

The food that fed the towns was all gone and squatters littered the forest boundaries.

Like vultures waiting for carrion, an administrative machinery was set up which, within 10 years, saw the destruction of most forest cover.

Officialdom justified this by saying that, since forests had matured, they had to be felled. Logging licences were given to many undeserving people, instead of those in wood conservation industries.

In the meantime, the sawmillers, plywood millers and even the only pulp-miller in the country experienced untold wood shortages.

The most illogical arguments

All hell broke loose when the Moi Government reneged on all its promises to preserve gazetted forests for future generations. Up to 160,000 acres were earmarked for official excision. 

In Karura and Ngong, political loyalty was rewarded with large chunks of natural forests and plans were made to develop residential estates, golf courses and jockey clubs. 

From Kitale in Trans Nzoia to chunks of Mt Elgon forest and from the Mau range to Mt Kenya, demarcations went ahead, with claims that the landless were at long last going to receive land.

The most illogical arguments in favour of turning Kenya into a desert were heard. But, fortunately, we went into elections before the last nail was hammered into in our forests' coffin.

A breach of trust had been executed by a government. The lie was that agrarian reform should start with dishing out fragile forest ecosystems to the landless, destroying plantation forestry and the forestry profession.

Fortunately, all is not lost. An aggressive reforestation programme is still possible, probably using different approaches, such as giving well worked-out forest management licences to individuals, companies or local communities.

Besides this, a forests recovery programme should be set in motion – with the declaration that professionalism and zero tolerance to corruption will henceforth guide public service.

Link :

The machinery of Mau forest destruction - here a forwarder on its way from Eastern Mau.

Destruction Mau East ( Photo : Simon Counsell )

Destruction of ogiek landstreams ( Photo : Simon Counsell )