Nairobi — One of the most controversial issues of forest management in the country has been the shamba system.
Interestingly, two groups of conservationists are on extreme sides of the debate.
On the one side is a group coalescing around Green Belt Movement founder and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai while on the other are conservation groups like the Friends of Mau Watershed, the Kenya Forest Working Group and technical experts like Mr Wamugunda Geteria and Mr Colin Church.
With the advantage of her international stature and her position as Environment assistant minister before the referendum, Prof Maathai has tended to outshine the latter group and sway the Government and other interested parties to her side.
In 2004, her relentless campaign against the shamba system, where people manage forests by planting trees and also cultivating food crops, saw thousands of these "forest workers" kicked out of the forests.
The concerns of Prof Maathai on the environmental degradation or neglect were not totally unfounded since the forest workers at times rented out their plots to outsiders who had no need to look after trees but after the food crops. There were also differences between the workers and forest officers. It was cancelled also because of the Forest Department's inability to supervise it. Nevertheless, the other group sees Prof Maathai's stand as one out of ignorance or political expediency.
Mr Church, a former chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service and one who has been involved recently in the fencing of the Aberdare National Park, says in a recent commentary: "The shamba system is one of various options which should be applied in designated areas which could include those Forest Department lands so destroyed of indigenous trees and not so critical for water catchment. The shamba system is a management tool workable on private woodlot or plantation systems."
He says only preservation die-hards would rule out such a proven system or any other for that matter which, with sound management, can work. Areas of gazetted forest identified for plantations are clearly explained in the new Act as suitable for timber harvesting.
The Forest Department and also the Kenya Forestry Research Institute also argue that non-resident cultivation (shamba system) is a commercially viable way to farm trees since it gives employment and off-take income. But the warning is: it must be managed under water-tight conditions.
Prof Maathai says she is not opposed to the shamba system because it is inherently bad but she opposes where it is practised as this is what determines its usefulness or destructiveness.
"The shamba system should never be used on lands where protection, conservation and rehabilitation of indigenous forests is essential," says Prof Maathai.
She says commercial plantations should be strictly established on land that is outside indigenous forest lands like private land.
Threat to conservation
Mr Geteria says Prof Maathai's threats that she will continue to fight the cultivation and establishment of forest plantations in gazetted forests, is in itself, a threat to conservation and forestry.
He accuses Prof Maathai of refusing to appreciate what sustainable forestry practice stands for by opposing the "well-thought out" Act.
He says with the new Act, Kenya will improve on jobs, wood-based industries and wealth through forestry as Kenya has the fastest growth rates of some of the most exotic trees in the world.
"The argument (by Prof Maathai) that these will damage water catchments, endanger soil and wildlife protection and lead to desertification is flawed as our hydrologists, silviculturists and wildlife managers will testify. It is retrogressive and not keeping with modern times," says Mr Geteria.