Nairobi — For many people, Kenya is defined by the endless grasslands of the Masai Mara, herds of wildebeest and accompanying predators. It may surprise them to know, then, that the country is also home to 1.7 million hectares of indigenous forest - and that this land is under threat.
"There is great loss of biodiversity, especially in forests where people are using (land) for settlement, agriculture or other activities," Parkinson Ndonye, a senior researcher at the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA), told IPS.
"At the same time, it may prove difficult to act when these people are trying to survive," he added. "This is a matter of grave concern and should be talked about, including with the communities, to see how best to increase the forest cover." NEMA is a government body that coordinates conservation initiatives across the country.
If a controversial proposal to reintroduce Kenya's "shamba" system is accepted, the situation in forests could become even worse. Under this system, communities would be allowed to grow crops on forest lands.
Certain officials argue that communities might be encouraged to protect indigenous forests if this ensured them access to agricultural land. Others, led by Assistant Environment Minister and Nobel laureate Wangari Mathai, maintain that shamba will result in a further loss of plant and animal life.
Mathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work in environmental protection. She is founder of the Green Belt Movement, a conservation group that has led women in planting about 30 million of trees.
A further threat is posed by illegal logging, notably in the Mau area of the Rift Valley and the Mount Kenya Forest in central Kenya. Camphor and cedar trees, which produce prized varieties of wood, are said to be particular targets of loggers.
In the face of these hazards, the Green Belt Movement has warned that government will need to adopt a more inclusive approach if indigenous forests are to survive.
"All communities must be involved in planting and replanting indigenous trees to allow regeneration of natural forests, since this protects much of the biodiversity," Njogu Kahare, programmes officer at the Green Belt Movement, told IPS.
Such matters are receiving attention as the global community prepares to mark the International Day for Biological Diversity (May 22). This day was set aside by the United Nations to deepen awareness of the fact that human survival depends on safeguarding the full array of plant and animal life on earth. As the theme for the 2005 biological diversity day notes, 'Biodiversity is the life insurance of life itself'.
At present, rising populations and certain forms of development are leading to diminished biodiversity.
In a bid to halt this trend, the Convention on Biological Diversity was presented for signature at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro. The treaty, now ratified by over 170 countries, entered into effect in 1993.
It has set 2010 as the year by which loss of biodiversity must be significantly reduced. The success or failure of global efforts in this regard will be determined by, amongst others, the extent to which ecosystems (such as forest areas) are being sustainably managed - and the number of species listed as endangered.
Conservationists will also ascertain how many of the products we consume come from sustainable sources, and whether alien species have been contained in certain habitats - or allowed to crowd out their indigenous counterparts.
The aims of the Convention on Biological Diversity are also reflected in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted by global leaders in 2000 in a bid to tackle key aspects of poverty and under-development. MDG seven calls for the notion of environmental sustainability to be woven into policies and programmes adopted by governments.
However, a press release issued this week by the Secretariat of the convention has pointed out that all the MDGs will be harder to attain if greater efforts are not made to preserve biodiversity. (The Montreal-based secretariat helps oversee the implementation of the biodiversity convention.)
"Less biodiversity leads to a decline in the crucial ecosystem goods and services needed for life, such as food, clean water, and the materials for clothing and shelter," the May 19 document noted.
"Although all people rely on biodiversity, it is the poor who will disproportionately bear the costs of this loss."