The gum tree tragedy in Kenya

November 17, 2009 12:00 am

, The gum-tree is currently the most popular tree in most parts of Africa. It is fast growing and provides large volumes of fuel wood, which is the main source of cooking energy in rural areas.  Secondly, it is extensively used in the construction industry at all levels and for fencing.

Given its height, the gum tree is an effective wind breaker.  In addition the tree provides shade in many parts of sunny Kenya both for humans and livestock.   Aesthetically, a forest of gum trees is attractive and makes the environment cool and serene.  Lastly, currently, the gum tree is one of the most lucrative cash crops, especially in rural areas, and has now been commercialized through large plantations.

On the other hand, the gum-tree is probably the most destructive tree in Kenya. Its thick network of roots sacks water deep into the ground and over a wide area and they have the capacity to drain and dry water tables including the wetland. Its large trunk and leafy branches do not tolerate other crops nearby. As the tree grows and matures, it quickly stifles all the undergrowth except the least useful grasses.

Both the colonial government and the white settlers who introduced the gum-tree into Kenya were aware of these destructive effects. Indeed the tree was only planted in places where it had least negative effect on other crops. The indigenous Kenyans must also have been aware because they planted gum-trees mainly in the front of their homesteads, both for shade and domestic use.  In this way it was possible to benefit from the gum-tee while mitigating its negative effects. Neither the indigenous Kenyans nor the white settlers did grow gum trees on or near wetlands, river banks or boundaries with neighbouring farms.  It was understood by even the most illiterate Kenyans that to ensure food security one kept gum trees away from farmland and wetlands. 

Population pressure and greed for cash incomes has changed all that.  In most rural areas and especially the agriculturally high potential zones, the gum tree is rapidly replacing maize and other food crops as the main cash crop.  In the densely populated parts of Western Province, for example, there seems to be more land under gum trees than food crops. 

As the gum tree takes up more agricultural land, the crops on the remaining land automatically perform poorly because of the negative effects of the gum tree. In fact currently in Western Kenya there are families which cannot harvest even a bag of maize from an acre of land surrounded by gum trees. The introduction of the South African gum tree species as a large plantation cash crop has further aggravated the problems.  Currently, Kenya which not long ago exported maize, has to import maize to feed its population.  We submit that the gum tree has contributed significantly to this tragedy. 

To save the country from further collapse of its agriculture and destruction of the environment, the government must implement the policy on the gum tree without fear. Kenyans must be protected from their greed and ignorance, in order  to save the wetlands and river banks from the gum tree destruction and reclaim all the high potential agricultural land that has been lost to the gum tree craze, for food crops.


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