2017- 2018 were years that whacked me in the face in a number of ways. One of them is working on an article on forest conservation in Kenya as agreed with an editor of a certain magazine… only for him to not publish it. In addition he failed to answer my follow up emails. I decided that my work must be seen either way. This is the article that never made it to the January- March 2018 edition of magazine.
When we consider the importance of forests a lot of emphasis is usually put on benefits to nature: preventing soil erosion, acting as water catchment areas, providing habitats for a range of ecosystems, etc. But did you know forests also contribute largely to the economy? It’s estimated that the forest sector contributes about KES 7 Billion to the economy annually, while providing employment directly to over 50,000 people and indirectly to 300,000 others. More than 530,000 households living within a radius of 5 kilometers from the forest reserves depend on them for their honey, grazing, herbal medicines, fishing, fuel, cultivating, food, water and other needs.
As recently as 2006, Kenya’s national forest cover stood at 1.7%, a far cry from the 10% recommended by United Nations for every country. But the situation has greatly improved over the years and now we are at 7%. This can be attributed to rigorous efforts by both the government and private sector to protect this vital resource.
One of the measures taken is proper fencing (eg. Karura Forest, Ngong Road Forest and Nairobi Arboretum) for clear demarcation of forest boundaries and to increase security. This prevents the situation of fluid perimeters that have provided a cover for illegal loggers’ operations in the past. Charity trusts and community associations such as Friends of Karura Forest have sponsored these fencing strategies with remarkable success. The 400km fencing project in Aberdares done by Rhino Ark has seen a 20.6 per cent forest cover increase between 2005 and 2010. Before the fencing, forest cover had declined by 30 per cent from 1990-2003.
Setting up of the Kenya Forest Service is a milestone in the forest conservation narrative. Established under the Forest Conservation and Management Act no 34 of 2016, its mandate is “to provide for the development and sustainable management, including conservation and rational utilization of all forest resources for the socioeconomic development of the country and for connected purposes”. The Service has been instrumental in fighting for the protection and management of Kenya’s forests, for instance working to reclaim 1000 acres of Karura Forest from land grabbers, organizing tree census in state-owned forests for sustainable use, and undertaking many other useful initiatives.
Studies show that Africa has lost 64 million hectares of forest between 1995 and 2005, the greatest decline on any continent during that period. This depletion is attributed to fuel wood gathering. A study by Green Africa Foundation (an NGO), reveals that 5.6 million trees are felled daily in Kenya. According to GAF’s research findings, 64.6 percent of all Kenya’s 8.7 million households (based on the 2009 national population census) wholly depend on firewood as their cooking fuel. Each family harvests between 10kgs and 20kgs of firewood daily. Thus the development of clean cookstoves which use alternative fuel (such as waste paper and biogas) has significantly boosted conservation efforts by reducing reliance on charcoal. The Clean Cookstoves Association of Kenya supports the sector by facilitating the scaling up of the clean cookstoves and clean fuels markets. The Association also co-ordinates stakeholders to promote an environment for a thriving cook stove field by working closely with government, development agencies, private sector and other partners.
The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources has made tremendous strides in the past few months. On 28th August 2017 the ban on plastic bags was finally implemented after many years of protracted battles between manufacturers and the Ministry. Any visitor to Nairobi’s forests can attest to ugly scenes of plastic bags all over. The Nairobi Arboretum and John Michuki Memorial Park in particular are prime examples- the sections along Nairobi River are choking in waste paper and raw sewage too.
Former Environment Cabinet Secretary Judi Wakhungu announced on 19th September 2017 that plastic bottles have been banned from Nairobi National Park and Karura Forest. In due time, the Ministry will extend the ban to all protected areas and forest reserves. This shall go a long way in protecting forests from the pollution they have suffered for years. Harmful chemicals from plastics leach into the soil while the papers and bottles ruin habitats for many species.
Despite these successes, threats to forest conservation in Kenya still abound. Illegal logging for charcoal and sandalwood, invasion of forests for construction of homes due to population growth, land grabbing, political interference, low tree replanting rate and many others must be firmly dealt with to uphold and improve the well-being of our forests.
We have come a long way as a country in regard to forest conservation. With continued concerted and targeted efforts by both the government and private sector, the situation will definitely keep improving. In 2017 Prof. Karanja Njoroge, the chairman of the Friends of Karura Forest, thanked the government for revoking 400 title deeds that had been issued to people owning land in the forest. Such bold moves are a step in the right direction and should encourage every Kenyan to care for our forests in their own small ways.