Nairobi — Protecting indigenous forests is one catch phrase in Kenya which immediately brings to mind tragic and politically charged images.
These are images of homes, schools and churches burnt down; women cooking out in the open; families struggling to put up temporary shelter in the rain; children crying; and angry men appearing before TV cameras to ask where they are supposed to take their families, now that the Government has evicted them from land for which they have title deeds.
For it is only after such a brutal eviction has taken place that government spokesmen will appear to explain that this was a necessary step for the protection of "indigenous forests" and of "water catchment areas".
Such spokesmen will also invariably add that it was both morally and legally wrong for vote-seeking politicians (usually from a previous regime) to have, much earlier on, settled these people within a gazetted forest by unprocedural means.
And yet you don't have to be an apologist for the government to recognise that there is a strong scientific case for ensuring that small scale farmers are not allowed to settle in forests and to carve out for themselves farms within these indigenous forests.
The direct causal link between deforestation on the one hand, and both the reduction of rainfall and the drying up of streams and rivers on the other, is an undeniable fact on which scientific consensus has long been reached.
The only criticism possibly would be of the methods used to reclaim these forest lands. But that they have to be reclaimed by the government and preserved and protected as indigenous forests is indisputable. There is no other viable policy.
Now let us consider a different scenario involving the same factors as those involved in those forest evictions: trees as a natural resource, poor communities trying to eke out a living, and the threat of desertification. But this second scenario is one in which the proper use of science has been brought into the equation.
Northern Kenya has been much in the news recently owing to the famine that has gripped that part of the country.
Daily Nation writer Peter Kimani, who reported on this famine, noted that in Mandera, the surrounding "bush" consisted of "- scattered stunted acacia, thorn trees and cactus that survive in the harsh terrain where temperatures average 40 degrees Celsius."
These plants have great significance in this area.
In northern Kenya's arid and semi-arid lands, apart from livestock, one of the few economic activities available to the nomadic communities who live in those parts, is that of cutting trees for the production of charcoal. For trees do grow in many parts here, as much of it is not desert as commonly imagined, but rather semi-arid woodlands.
And when you consider that these arid and semi-arid lands constitute about 70 per cent of the land area of Kenya, you get an idea of the extent of the threatening environmental crisis inherent in the extensive charcoal-burning in northern Kenya.
And yet in some parts of that zone, a crisis has been averted. Trees are rarely cut down for charcoal by a good number of nomadic communities.
According to Arid Land Resources Ltd, a company which is pioneering the sustainable utilisation of natural resources in northern Kenya, the Daaba community (of Isiolo District) for example, used to cut down the Acacia Senegal tree to make charcoal. But now they no longer do this, and in fact protect these trees as a priority.
Why is this? What could possibly lead a poor nomadic community in that dry and desolate part of the country to stop utilising one of the few natural resources to be found in that area?
The answer is that they have not stopped utilising the trees as such. Rather, they have found a better use for these trees, than cutting them down for charcoal.
Many indigenous plants found in that zone produce gums and resins that are of commercial value, and in particular Gum Arabic, a sticky substance often found oozing out of the trunks of many acacia trees. This gum is used as an ingredient in adhesives, confectionary and medicines. For those trained in the techniques of harvesting this substance, Gum Arabic can be a very valuable source of income, as it is in much demand both locally and globally.
In a vast and ambitious project involving Kenya Forestry Research Centre (Kefri); the World Agro-forestry Centre (Icraf); the Kenya Forestry Department; Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (Kari); Semi-Arid Lands Training and Improvement Centre Kenya (Saltlick); and the Gum and Resins Association (Gara), Arid Lands Resource has sought to expand the process of gum collection throughout northern Kenya.
At present the focus is to expand into Isiolo, Marsabit, Samburu, Turkana, Wajir and Mandera districts.
Along with this, efforts are being made to expand the market for this product locally, especially among those local manufacturers who continue to import Gum Arabic from Sudan via the United States.
This is no easy short-term undertaking. Arid Land Resources has been active in this field for many years, and only now is full commercial viability being attained.
This then is one example of government agencies, NGOs, research institutions, and the private sector getting together to find solutions to a problem that at first glance seems to be beyond any rational solution. For science, when properly applied, can usually find solutions to even such complex problems.