The East African (Nairobi)

Africa: Beware Those Foreign Plants

Nairobi — NOBEL PEACE LAUREATE Wangari Maathai, wants the African continent to protect its rich biodiversity by discouraging exotic plants.

She has cautioned against giving priority to exotic plants, which she says were becoming a threat to Africa's flora and fauna.

"Thinking money all the time is also contributing to the governments' sacrificing our rich biodiversity," Prof Maathai told The EastAfrican in an interview.

She called for the vetting of any plants being introduced to the continent, to find out if they have negative effects on the already existing biodiversity.

"We are giving a lot of emphasis now to trees such as the eucalyptus," she said. "Several years down the line, the water table will begin to go down with the huge tapping of water from the ground by these trees, because they consume too much water. The argument is that they mature quickly. But the sad thing is that they are being introduced in the continent's highlands, which are the custodian of the continent's natural drainage system, without which animals and people downstream cannot survive."

Africa is currently an agricultural continent, but more money will be needed in future to feed its people, if the introduction of inappropriate species continues to be allowed, said Prof Maathai, adding that consulting with local researchers before such species are introduced, will prove whether or not to import them.

She said some plant species have adverse affects on some animal species, but nobody seems to understand that such an issue can have a severe effect on the balance of the ecosystem.

Giving the water hyacinth as an example, Prof Maathai said economic benefits of the introduction of this species have already been eaten up, as they are causing watersheds to dry up gradually, which could lead to desertification.

As a way of protecting this biodiversity, Prof Maathai asked governments to link up inter-dependent ministries that rely on natural resources for their productivity by ensuring that their laws do not contradict each other.

Prof Maathai said evolution of species was still taking place, adding that Africa should conserve and safeguard its genetic pool.

"Our few remaining forests are sites of genetic pools and they should not be disturbed through human encroachment as has happened in highly populated areas, where most of the land has been put under cultivation."

Using the example of Kenya, Prof Maathai said the land issue has caused many problems, which can be resolved through proper land management.

She said: "Since institutions dealing with water, forestry, agriculture, livestock management, energy, roads and housing, have a direct link to natural resources, it would be better if they were managed from one office. This would prevent them from making decisions that end up contradicting what the others are doing."

The construction of a road can lead to erosion, she said.

Prof Maathai said the continent was doing itself disservice "by failing to teach our people environmental conservation."

Maathai was attending the launch of a campaign to eliminate the use of plastics in Nairobi, where she was the chief guest. The campaign, "Towards a Clean and Green programme for Schools" is pegged on three Rs - Reuse, Reduce, Recycle. Prof Maathai warned that using plastic would be a major problem for Nairobi, and other urban centres, if not controlled.

The campaigns targets students as the future guides of society's resource management, with its pilot programme initiated jointly by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Nairobi Central Business Association, the Tana and Athi Rivers Development Authority (Tarda) and the Nairobi City Council.

The students will be involved in programmes on conservation and projects on waste sorting and reuse in schools.

They will also be involved in conservation competitions.

UNDP has initiated a programme meant to control pollution - the community cooker project in Nairobi's Kibera slums, which is generating gas from waste.

The programme will set up projects in schools for recycling of waste and the cleaning of the Nairobi River.

Richard Mwendandu, environmental planner at the Tana and Athi Rivers Development Authority, said Tarda will support the initiative as soil and water conservation is within its mandate.

Pollution of water is affecting thousands of people living downstream of Athi and Tana river basins, Kenya's longest river drainage systems.

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