The challenge facing Kenyan forests

July 21, 2009 12:00 am

, Kenya is blessed with great forests. Great in the sense that they are not just for aesthetic value but each of our forests has a very important and direct role it plays in the lives of Kenyans.

The five water towers of Cherengani, Mt Kenya, Mt Elgon, Mau Complex and the Aberdares are the very lifeline for Kenya. We are for example experiencing water and electricity shortages precisely because these water catchments have in the past been interfered with.

At independence it is estimated that gazzeted forests stood at about three percent of the total land area. At the time, we were not badly off since most of the settled areas had big chunks of private forests anyway.

Now at less than two percent, the situation is critical not only because the gazzeted forests have been excised and encroached on, but especially because the population has increased over five fold. This has led to the depletion of private and trust land forests.

Human activities have undoubtedly been and continue to be the greatest threat to our forests’ existence.  Invasion and settlement have alienated a big chunk of gazzeted forests.  The one percent of alienated forests representing about one million hectares has mainly been for settlement.  Agricultural activities have also caused a lot of harm to the country’s forests mainly because of the increasing demand for food.

Of the about 1.7 million hectares of gazzeted forests remaining, about 120 000 hectares or seven percent are plantation forests.  Plantation forests are those forests that were originally established for industrial use.  They were also established to act as a buffer to the indigenous forests which play much of the eco roles to our environment.

Apart from excisions, other causes of forest degradation are illegal logging, uncontrolled cultivation in forests, forest fires most of which are caused by arsonists and of course unsustainable charcoal burning.

The impact all these causes are obvious for all to see.  Not only have we lost a lot forest cover, our water catchments are now severely threatened.  It was formally a folk tale but it is now reality that the destruction of forests is having negative impacts on the country.

One effect that immediately comes to mind is the power shortage making rationing imminent.  Most Kenyans do not know that had the 45 megawatts Sondu Miriu hydro power station been operating right now, we wouldn’t be bracing ourselves for power rationing.

Why it is not running almost a year after construction was completed is because the waters of the Sondu Miriu River are too low to produce electricity. They are low because of the destruction of the Mau.

Let us not even dwell on the water shortage gripping the country right now.  That should be clear by now.  Other effects of forest degradation however include soil erosion and siltation of lakes, dams and other water  Rains wash down top soil from upstream choking the countries lakes and dams to extinction.
That is the case with Lakes Nakuru, and Baringo which could disappear sooner than we think because of the havoc going on in the Mau Complex.

But all is not gloom.  It is still possible to reverse the adverse impacts we have meted on our forests to its original form.  It is also very possible to live off our forest sufficiently and sustainably.  All we need is a lot of hard work to offset our past omissions and then strike a balance between what we take out and what we leave for tomorrow.

For starters, it is the responsibility of every individual Kenyan to participate in forest conservation. This could be through planting of trees both for conservation purposes and for industrial or domestic use.  The surest way of ensuring that our forests are left intact is provide adequate supplies of trees on farms for timber, fuel wood, charcoal, building poles, fodder, fruits, gum resins, barks and other numerous uses we have for trees.

The new forestry legislation will make the work of conservation much easier.  It for example allows for local communities living adjacent to forests to have a say in the running of their local forest.  They can also form groups known as Community Forest Associations (CFA) and come into joint management agreements with KFS.   These agreements set parameters for utilisation of the forest’s resources as well as spelling out the role of each partner in its management.

KFS is also encouraging Kenyans to venture into commercial tree farming.  Most Kenyans would be surprised to learn that with the advent of new faster growing tree varieties, commercial forestry is just as profitable as other forms of agriculture if not more with the advantage of requiring much less supervision.

We are also encouraging Kenyans to support the rehabilitation of hilltops and water catchment areas.  They are also urged to plant suitable tree in riparian areas to protect water sources.

On its part, KFS will continue to relentlessly pursue the recovery of encroached and other illegally acquired forest land.  We will also continue urging the government to reclaim some crucial catchment areas allocated to people for settlement.

Other efforts in top gear include rehabilitation of degraded forest areas through various means including the introduction of Plantation Establishment for Livelihood Improvement Scheme (PELIS) which allows farmers to cultivate in forest areas as they tend tree seedling for a certain period of time.

There are strict guidelines governing this scheme including signed agreements with farmers to adhere to plans laid down for the rehabilitation of the particular forests.

Our efforts also include protection of important catchment areas outside gazzeted forests in local authority and private forests, promotion of enhanced soil conservation measures on farmlands and hill tops among other innovative measures.

The Service is also in the process of ascertaining the current forest cover through a national inventory of all forests in country.  This will greatly help in planning for effective management of forests.

Climate change is not rocket science – man’s own unsustainable habits have led to environmental degradation which ultimately leads to all the unpredictable weather patterns that we are witness to. I believe that each Kenyan has a role to play in mitigation of the same by planting more trees in all the available land around us.

Mr Mbugua is the Director – Kenya Forest Service


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