Hunger: Nature is Hitting Back

Published on 10th January 2006

It is generally accepted that for a country to maintain a sustainable course of development it should, among other factors, sustain at least 10 per cent of its land mass under indigenous forest cover.  Regrettably, Kenya is reported to currently have only 1.7 per cent.

When the general public considers forests in Kenya, many people interchangeably refer to indigenous forests and commercial plantations without really recognizing the difference between them.  Commercial plantations were originally established through clear-cutting of indigenous forests and are managed through the shamba system.

While indigenous forests are endemic and therefore well adapted to the local environmental conditions of our geographical region, commercial plantations are of exotic (or alien) trees such as Eucalyptus, Pines and Black Wattle which were introduced into the country at the turn of the 20th century from the Southern and Northern hemisphere by the colonial administration.

The alien species are preferred because they have been promoted as trees that mature faster and therefore give quicker returns on investment.  However, what goes unsaid about commercial plantations of exotic species is that the process of clearing indigenous forests results in loss of many of the services (listed below) that indigenous forests provide.  Yet in the long term, these services have so far greater economic and environmental value than the short term economic benefits provided by the plantations.

From another perspective, tress like Eucalyptus are grown by small – scale farmers and sold to the tea industry as an alternative to electricity because fuel wood is considered cheaper.  However, claiming that fuel wood is cheaper than electricity is in this case a misconception because when the farmers plant trees, particularly at the source of the river or along river beds, the long – term environmental and economic impact is devastating – especially with respect to the drying up of the streams, rivers and the surrounding land which could eventually desertify.  Therefore, while these trees may be profitable to the farmer and the tea industry, they undermine the capacity of tomorrow’s generation to successfully grow tea at all.

Although both indigenous forests and commercial plantation are important to Kenya’s development, they play different roles that are not interchangeable.  Indeed, while we can survive without commercial plantations, we would perish without indigenous forests especially those in mountainous areas.  This is the crux of the matter, and the reason why I oppose any encroachment on the very scare indigenous forests that remain today.

Indigenous forests are important because they play the following roles:

  1. They conserve biological diversity (i.e. the very wide variety of species of plants, animals, birds, insects and micro-organisms).  They also provide habitats for these species.
  2. Over time, the forest floor accumulates leaves and debris which decompose to form a thick expansive, sponge – like layer of organic matter (or forest litter) which facilitates reception, retention and conservation of rain water.
  3. They serve as expansive water catchment areas or “water towers”.
  4. They serve as water reservoirs that recharge the underground water – table and regulate the flow of water in the streams and rivers.
  5. They slow the rate of water run off and thereby prevent soil erosion which in turn reduces sediment load in a river water.
  6. They have an expansive surface area (from the canopy to the forest floor) that holds a large amount of rain water, the evaporation of which along with transpiration, contributes to the rainfall patterns.
  7. They are a rich genetic and biological resource.
  8. They serve as long – term “lungs of the planet” by absorbing carbon dioxide and thereby acting as carbon sinks that help avert global warming.
  9. They are a source of indigenous timber, some of which is highly valued.
  10. They are a source of non – wood forest products such as medicinal plants, honey, bark, fruits, vegetables, resins and animal fodder.
  11. They are important sites for eco – tourism, leisure, culture and spirituality.
  12. They are home to some communities in Kenya who are hunters and gatherers.

In contrast, commercial plantations play the following roles:

  1. They primarily provide a supply of logs for timber and paper industries.
  2. They provide firewood for rural communities.
  3. They provide building and construction materials.

Quite obviously, comparing the roles of indigenous forests with those of commercial plantations, the following important points can be deduced:

First, because indigenous forests are complex natural ecosystems, they contribute towards environmental sustainability and therefore support the foundation upon which many other development sectors depend (e.g. agriculture, water, energy, tourism, health, etc.).

Secondly, since the roles of indigenous forests and commercial plantations are not interchangeable, clear – cutting of indigenous forests and replacing them with commercial plantations undermines the capacity of indigenous forests to conduct their critical ecological roles. It was wrong for the British to have clear-cut indigenous forests during colonial times, and it is still wrong to do so today.  In hindsight, if at that time the British had as much environmental awareness as we do today, the excessive clear-cutting of indigenous forests and their replacement with monocultures of commercial plantations of exotic species would be inexcusable.

Thirdly, it is also crucial to understand that although commercial plantations may be expansive in acreage, they are merely monoculture farms of trees and not indigenous tropical forest ecosystems.  Unlike a commercial plantation, an indigenous tropical forest ecosystem is rich in biological diversity with several habitats and thousands of species of flora and fauna.  Thus, having expansive commercial plantations but insufficient indigenous forest cover still renders the country environmentally unstable.

Fourthly, because commercial plantations of exotic trees are grown to supply the timber and paper industries, the mature trees are harvested (in approximately 30- year cycles) by clear-cutting which consequently renders much of the land bare.  In contrast, since indigenous forests need only be selectively logged, the ecosystem is minimally disturbed and therefore these forests ensure long-term environmental sustainability for the present and future generations.

Finally, unlike the natural ecological process that occurs in indigenous forests, when commercial plantations are established, indigenous vegetation (including the undergrowth) is cleared.  This only leaves the moist and fertile sponge-like layer of organic matter which initially provides very rich soil for propagation of both seedlings and food crops (which is why the shamba system is popular among communities residing near forests).  Gradually however, as the land is repeatedly used for monoculture plantations of exotic tress and continuous cultivation of food crops by non-residential cultivators, the fertile soil becomes eroded and exhausted and eventually the ground hardens.  In such a state, the land becomes susceptible to landslides, floods, further soil erosion, drought and famine.  This process of environmental degradation is usually not immediately realized because it occurs slowly.  Indeed, it is often the case that the generation that causes such destruction is not the one that suffers its negative effects including starvation and death.  It is for this reason that we need to remind ourselves of our moral responsibility to protect the environment for future generations.

In Kenya, some of the most important indigenous forests are located in the mountainous regions of the country and include: Mt. Kenya, Aberdare ranges, Mau complex, Cherengani Hills and Mt. Elgon.

Currently, the total area in Kenya that is under indigenous forest is reportedly 1.7%.  This is not only a far cry from the recommended 10% but also a reflection of the ongoing threat against indigenous forests especially in the tropics where millions of hectares are lost annually.  Therefore, the need to intensify reforestation efforts to increase indigenous forests cover is not only necessary, but also a matter of extreme urgency.

But how did Kenya lose so much of its indigenous forests?  As far back as 1910, the colonial administration in the new Kenyan territory clear-cut indigenous forests in order to acquire land for the establishment of commercial plantations.  These plantations were needed to supply the emerging private timber and paper industries.  In later years, some indigenous forests were also, both legally and illegally, clear-cut by non-residential cultivators, allotees and squatters.  The cumulative effect of such clear-cutting gradually reduced indigenous forests cover to what is now a meager 1.7% - which is alarming considering that two-thirds of Kenya is arid, semi-arid and desert.  Although the current situation is dire, it can still be improved if forest conservation and restoration measures are enhanced and strictly implemented.

What then, needs to be done?  In order to increase the indigenous forests cover to the recommended minimum of 10%, the following should be done:

Firstly, because Kenya is largely dry, we must as a matter of urgency, protect any existing indigenous forests and trees.  Secondly, we should reclaim and rehabilitate forest land that was previously cleared and converted into commercial plantations – and as soon as possible, altogether remove commercial plantations from all forest land.  Thirdly, we should rehabilitate forest on other public and trust lands – including local degraded hills and river beds. Fourthly, indigenous forests should be managed sustainably, and, only selective logging of trees for timber should be allowed.  Further, communities should only be given access to conduct non-destructive activities such as bee-keeping, harvesting of medicinal plants, collection of fuel wood and animal fodder, and development of nature trails for eco-tourism.  Lastly, a government decision should be made altogether to remove commercial plantations (and therefore the shamba system) from indigenous forest lands.  Left alone, or with some assistance through seeding and/or the introduction of primary species, even degraded indigenous forests will regenerate and sustain themselves.

All the above efforts are important because the services that Kenya and her people receive from indigenous forest ecosystem cannot be provided for by commercial plantations.  Clearly, indigenous forests have continued to be very instrumental to the survival of this nation; they must therefore be protected, conserved and rehabilitated at all costs.

As for commercial plantations, the following, should be done:

Firstly, they should strictly be established on land that is outside indigenous forest lands.  Secondly, small-or large-scale plantations should be established on private lands where trees can be grown as cash crops.  Thirdly, plantations should also be established on leased land as long as it is not part of the forest land.  In such an arrangement, the shamba system would continue to be used because owners of commercial plantations, wishing to cut their expenses, would allow community members living in close proximity to their plantations to utilize the land for production of food crops even as they nurture tree seedlings.  In this case, where the commercial plantation is simply a farm of trees, the shamba system is appropriate since no ecological system are threatened or undermined. It is for this reason I emphasize that the shamba system is not inherently bad; rather it is where it is practiced that determines its usefulness or destructiveness.  The shamba system should never be used on lands where protection, conservation and rehabilitation of indigenous forests is essential.  So, why does the government insists on allowing commercial plantations (and therefore the shamba system) on indigenous forest land?

Historically, the colonial government and thereafter the post-colonial administration took upon itself the responsibility of providing logs for private sector through commercial plantations established in indigenous forests.  Perhaps the post-independence administration should not have taken upon itself the responsibility to produce logs for the private sector.  Be that as it may, if it continues to do so in the future, production of logs should never be done at the expense of indigenous forests and services that they provide.  As an alternative, the business of growing trees to supply the private timber and paper industries could be left to the private sector (including small-scale farmers).  If this is done, plantations should only be allowed outside indigenous forest land and water catchments areas.  This is because of the immense importance of indigenous forests to the survival of the nation, especially with respect to conservation of biodiversity and control of rainfall patterns.

In conclusion, my appeal is two-fold:

Firstly, that the government makes it its primary responsibility to protect, conserve and rehabilitate our indigenous forests and trees until we at least attain the recommended 10% forest cover.  Secondly, that all commercial plantations be established outside of indigenous forest lands.  If this is done, the country will be more secure with respect to sectors such as agriculture, water supply, health, hydro-power, tourism, timber and paper industries.

Unless we fully understand the linkages between indigenous forests and these economic sectors, we shall continue to trivialize both the role that forests play in sustainable development, and the urgency with which Kenya needs to increase her already depleted indigenous forest cover.  Indeed, the tragedies that this country is facing today such as drought, famine and poverty have been exacerbated by the gradual degradation of our environment – including indigenous forests.



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