opinionBy Wamugunda Geteria
Nairobi — The Forest Bill 2005 awaits presidential assent. The implementation of the Ndung'u Report promises to restore gazetted forests wrongly alienated. Prof Wangari Maathai has fought hard to save Karura and other forests and won. The Aberdare Ranges are nearly fully fenced off.
Water-catchment management boards have been constituted and are raring to go. Biodiversity advocates are happy that their argument for protecting indigenous trees and animals have been heard.
All this is good news for the rich in society, but not for the poor who look for basic necessities out of forests. They yearn for food, firewood, fodder, shelter, jobs, medicines, fruits, game-meat and nuts out of forests and other protected areas.
As a result, conflicts are sure to follow the President's assent to the Forest Bill 2005, and we need to get it right this time.
The first legal reservation of forests in Kenya was made in 1891 when all the mangroves at the Coast were protected under a Crown Lands Ordinance.
This was followed in 1900 by the Ukamba Woods and Forest Regulation that reserved 'trees within five miles of court-houses and within five miles of the railway line'.
Subsequent additions followed non-occupied forest areas in the highlands to provide firewood for the railway, and timber for building the British Empire.
In 1902, a Forest Department was set up with the primary aim of giving concessions for forest exploitation. An example was when Col. Grogan was given a concession that ran for 46 years, mainly for timber extraction.
By 1946, a firm policy on re-afforestation had been accepted and at independence from the British, we had a properly run forestry service.
The country was divided into 10 forest divisions, over 50 forest stations and hundreds of sawmills. Labour for tending forest crops and running the mills lived in over 70 villages.
An annual planting programme for 6,000 acres was achieved, and we had a niche in world timber export markets supported by fast growing cypresses, pines and eucalypts. The country was proud of its sound forest administration and management.
Then came a sad period in the mid-1980s when utter chaos reigned, when trees were felled wantonly, resident workmen and sawmillers were kicked out of forests, and both the landed and landless were settled in water catchments.
Immature plantations were felled and large fragile areas left bare. There was total collapse of all that forestry stood for. Consequently, our forests continued to elicit inevitable conflicts between extractivists, farmers, national research managers, policy-makers, environmental advocacy groups, and private companies.
Most of the "international" bodies that supported our environmental efforts jumped ship and we were left to nurse our wounds alone. It took years to realise that the real cause of failure was non-participation of local people in forest conservation.
Conservation practices were conducted by bureaucracies that believed they knew all about caring for Planet Earth. Using armed game, forest, and park scouts, they made the common folk bystanders of protected areas. The result was to make foresters the people's enemy.
Experience all over the developing world shows that without a participatory approach by the local people, land-care practices often fail, and there must be trade-off between forest conservation and utilisation.
When all human activity is outlawed; when people lack basic necessities in the midst of bounty; when children walk bare-foot and pot-bellied because parents cannot cook their food so that tourists can grow in numbers, conservation is utterly futile.
We can still protect our hydro-electricity and domestic water dams without a tight-fisted approach to our forests. We can also get more giant rats, dik-diks, impalas and blue monkeys for our cuisine with proper culling regimes.
By saying that water, soil, wildlife, forest trees and shrubs are conserved for rational use by all Kenyans, the Forest Bill 2005 makes a wake-up call.
In 1978, at a conference in Djakarta, Indonesia, Jack Westoby, a forest industrialist and economist, made a stinging attack on traditional forestry. He argued that '. . . foresters may have the obligation to decide which side they are on . . . whether they stand on the side of power, the landed property, the status quo . . . or whether they share the aspirations of the common people and are prepared to work for the day when the rich contribution of forestry is harnessed to the service of all, not to that of a privileged few.'
Our past failures characterised by running battles with wood-hewers, fodder- and honey-gatherers, game-meat hunters, and forest cultivators have proved Westoby right.
Development economists say we need to grow timber for industries to save, and earn, foreign exchange. They say we still require pulp and paper for export, while water for our cities and hydro-electricity is best preserved by forests
We should, however, beware these red herrings that preach biodiversity merely because the World Wildlife Fund, Unep and the Global Environment Facility require us to do so.
Wildlife protection should not be pursued so that we can earn more yens, dollars and sterling pounds from tourists. These are only good so long as they are subordinated to the greater value of forestry - that of local community development.
Fuel-wood from forests must replace cow-dung in homesteads and timber has to be harvested. Forestry must contribute towards equitable distribution of incomes, improving rural environments, reducing hunger and unemployment, and making villagers self-reliant in regard to forest material needs.
Mr Geteria is a member of the Scientific Committee of the Kenya Forestry Society.