11 January 2006

Kenya: Cultivating Forests Has Too Many Drawbacks


Nairobi — 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.

The dwindling forest cover caused by the implementation of the shamba system.

When the general public considers forests in Kenya, many people interchangeably refer to indigenous forests and commercial plantations without really recognising 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 hemispheres by the colonial administration.

These alien species are preferred because they have been promoted as trees that mature faster and therefore give quicker return 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 that indigenous forests provide. Yet in the long term, these services have far greater economic and environmental value than the short term economic benefits provided by the plantations.

From another perspective, trees like the Eucalyptus are grown by small-scale tea 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 these trees, particularly at the source of rivers or along river beds, the long-term environmental and economic impact is devastating, especially with respect to the drying up of streams, rivers and the surrounding land which could eventually desertify.

Therefore, while these trees may be profitable to the farmer and the tea industry today, they undermine the capacity of tomorrow's generation to successfully grow tea at all.

Although both indigenous forests and commercial plantations 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.

Indigenous forests are important because they play the following roles:

- They conserve endemic 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.

- 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.

- They serve as expansive water-catchment areas or "water towers".

- They serve as water reservoirs that recharge the underground water-table and regulate the flow of water in streams and rivers.

- They slow the rate of water runoff and thereby prevent soil erosion which in turn reduces sediment load in river water.

- 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 rainfall patterns.

- They are a rich genetic and biological resource.

- They serve as long-term "lungs of the planet" by absorbing carbon dioxide and thereby acting as carbon sinks that help avert global warming.

- They are a source of indigenous timber, some of which is highly valued.

- They are a source of non-wood forest products such as medicinal plants, honey, bark, fruits, vegetables, resins and animal fodder.

- They are important sites for eco-tourism, leisure, culture and spirituality.

- They are home to some communities in Kenya who are hunters and gatherers.

In contrast, commercial plantations play the following roles:

- They primarily provide a supply of logs for the timber and paper industries.

- They provide firewood for rural communities.

- 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:

Firstly, because indigenous forests are complex natural ecosystems, they contribute towards environmental sustainability and therefore support the foundation upon which many other development sectors depend.

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 mono-cultures 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 mono-culture 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 processes that occur in indigenous forests, when commercial plantations are established, indigenous vegetation 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 mono-culture plantations of exotic trees 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. 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, Cherangani Hills and Mt. Elgon.

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 forest cover. Although the current situation is dire, it can still be improved if forest conservation and restoration measures ate enhanced and strictly implemented.

What then, needs to be done? In order to increase indigenous forest cover to the recommended minimum of 10 per cent, 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 forests on other public and trust lands Ð including local degraded hills and riverbeds.

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 to altogether 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 ecosystems cannot be provided for by commercial plantations. Clearly, indigenous forests have and continue 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 a cash crop.

Thirdly, plantations should also be established on leased land as long as it is not part of 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 utilise the land for production of food crops even as they nurtured tree seedlings.

In this case, where the commercial plantation is simply a farm of trees, the shamba system is appropriate since no ecological systems 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 practised 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.

Prof Wangarl Maathai is a Nobel Peace Laureate, Member of Parliament and Founder of the Green Belt Movement

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