Nairobi — Kenya has been losing nearly Sh3 billion every year due to non-exploitation of forest products since the ban on logging was effected in 1999.
Another Sh7 billion is used to import timber and its by-products from neighbouring countries to sustain the construction industry, among other uses. One of the biggest importers currently is the Kenya Power and Lighting Company which is buying electricity poles from South Africa and Tanzania. It imported 87,000 poles last year.
The ban, which was officially effected in March 2000 by then President Moi after an outcry over the destruction of indigenous forests,has been a sensitive subject even as its effects continue to be counter-productive. The illegal excisions to create settlements had led to the loss of 60,000 hectares of indigenous forests and 40,000 ha of forest plantations.
"The ban should now be lifted since it is illogical to have forest plantations and not utilise them," says the chairman of the Friends of Mau Watershed, Mr Richard Muir, who argues that the situation has improved a lot since 1999. Having reached the optimum growth, he says, most plantation forests are now going to waste.
The ban was necessistated by the receding forest cover of plantation and indigenous and forests - at the time less than three per cent of the recommended 10 per cent - brought about by a chaotic period of wanton destruction through logging, settlement of both landed and landless people in water-catchment areas and the eviction of resident workers and saw millers from the forests.
By 1998, out of the total plantation area allocated for harvesting 4,420 hectares (68 per cent) was allocated to non-licensed or briefcase operators while only 2,150 ha were allocated to licensed operators. These did not include the 6,711 allocation to Pan African Paper Mills, by far the single largest consumer of wood in the country.
The idea to suspend wood harvesting was plausible from whichever angle one looked at it since the felling of trees was not being matched by the replanting. The gap was so big that the backlog of bare forest land was estimated at 46,000 ha. Currently, the gazetted forest cover is 1.7 million hectares and only 120,000 hectares of these are forest plantations producing softwood like cypress and pine for industrial purposes. The other is indigenous forest.
But now, conservation groups, timber dealers and international stakeholders in environmental conservation say the ban should be lifted because timber shortage is so acute that to meet the country's need, we have to replenish it through the Sh7 billion imports annually. The backlog of bare forest land has also improved with the gap closing in at 20,000 ha.
The groups feel it should not wait until the implementation of the new Forest Act which was signed by the President on November 23. Although it allows for the commercialisation of the forest plantations, it may take long to implement since it has to await the conversion of the Forest Depertment into a Kenya Forest Service outfit and the setting up of other structures for the full implementation of the new law.
Blew the whistle
The loss, says the Kenya Forest Working Group (KFWG) and Fomawa which blew the whistle over the destruction of the Mau Complex, is immense and it is illogical to grow tree plantations and not utilise them.
Mr Muir, a private large scale forest plantation farmer, says there is no longer any justification of the ban on logging of over-mature and mature plantations which are now estimated to be 40,000 ha around the country. In addition, out of the 62,000 ha of young plantations there are nearly 18,000 ha of forest plantations between 10 and 22 years due for commercial thinning in the coming five-year period.
"These materials should be sold to earn revenue for the Government. The revenue realised should assist in replanting the backlogs and rehabilitating degraded natural forest areas," says the KFWG.
To fail to exploit the plantations means the trees are going to waste due to diseases, windblowing, illegal logging and rotting. In effect, the country continues to lose opportunities in revenue from local sales and export and also in employment.
A member of the Kenya Forestry Society and a former deputy conservator of forests, Mr Wamugunda Geteria, says the continued ban is "all nonsense". "There can be no conservation without utilisation. Forestry is about sustained development, sustained yields. You can forget forestry if you are planting and not harvesting," says Mr Wamugunda, who was involved in drafting the Forest Bill 2005.
At a glance, a temporary ban meant good for the country, since it was an opportunity to take stock of the forests' status and streamline the management and the licensing of millers. It was also meant to bridge the widening gap in the backlog of bare plantations and secure the more than one million hectares of indigenous forests shrinking due to illegal political allocations.
The acting chief conservator of forests, Mr David Mbugua, says the Forest Department has been advocating for the lifting of the ban, but until recently when the Forest Bill was signed into law. The new law now calls for government partnership with the private sector in the management of forests.
When it is implemented, says Mr Mbugua, it will see stakeholders, especially timber merchants and private farms, involved in commercial forestry being concessioned chunks of forests to grow trees for commercial purposes.
This will lessen the Government's burden in managing and policing, a task that will partly be left to the proposed KFS.