29 November 2006

Kenya: Where Concrete Jungle Might Edge Out Key Natural Forests

Nairobi — Uncontrolled mining of stones and other building materials is threatening two natural forests in Nyeri municipality.

Only last week, the forest department moved in to save Kabiru-ini and Kiganjo forests by ordering hundreds of stone miners to cease their activities. The miners have derived their livelihoods from local quarries for many years.

Haphazard excavation of building stones over the past six years has led to massive destruction of trees and vegetation, yet there has been minimal attempt to rehabilitate the affected areas.

ALL SHAPES AND SIZES: A miner shows a customer various categories of building stones excavated from the gazetted forests. Inset, deep gullies inside Kabiru-ini caused by quarrying. Photo/Paul Wanjiru

Central provincial forest officer Fred Ogombe banned mining in the area after the National Environment Management Authority threatened to sue him over continued destruction of gazetted forests.

The move came after the Nation exposed massive degradation of ecosystems in the expansive Muringato forest. About 3,000 people have been eking a living from quarries in gazetted government forests.

"We are giving him (forest officer) a chance to change. Nema and the officer serve the same government. He can stop destruction of local forests," said the provincial director of environment, Mr Wachira Bore.

But Mr Ogombe said political interference had been frustrating conservation efforts. Whenever quarrying is banned, there are demonstrations by hundreds of miners. Politicians then intervene in their favour to pressurise the provincial administration to allow reopening of mines.

Caved in on miners

The officer said he recommended the closure of local quarries two years ago after the walls of a pit caved in on miners.

He displayed copies of a letter by district forest officer J.M. Mburu ordering closure of quarries after a worker died. Mr Mburu also wrote to the district environment committee to endorse the decision.

"But there were demonstrations and, later, political intervention. The quarries were reopened several days later. A local politician met a local administrator over the issue. That is how mining resumed," said Mr Ogombe.

And this time round, after the closure of quarries last week, former Nyeri Town member of Parliament Wanyiri Kihoro led a group of quarry workers to Mr Bore's office to demand that the mines be reopened.

Unprecedented growth in the construction and building industry over the past few years has led to high demand for stones, leading to an alarming expansion of quarries.

This could impact negatively on the local environment as many miners have encroached on the two forests, heavily degrading them.

Kabiru-ini ecosystem was in the news in the late 1990s when the authorities ignored an outcry by the local community and hived off a large portion to create room for the Agricultural Society of Kenya showground.

Impact on environment

The forest department has been licensing new quarries in the forest with little regard to their impact on the environment.

Investors pay Sh30,000 to open a quarry in the forests, and Sh500 for every lorryload of stones. But the revenue from mining has been "too low and does not reflect the number of stones mined and transported from the quarries daily," said Mr Ogombe.

The law prohibits exploitation of forests. Mining in Kabiru-ini forest should be licensed, following an environmental impact assessment. This has not happened yet in Kabiru-ini and Kiganjo quarries, and in many others.

"I don't want to run away from our responsibility by saying that it is not us who license mining in forests. But we will do something now to control these activities," Mr Ogombe said.

It is the district environment committee, chaired by the district commissioner and including the district forester, the environment officer and the agricultural officer, among other leaders, that recommends exploitation of forests.

District commissioner Michael Mwangi said the environment committee recommends only after issues are tabled through the relevant government departments. The forestry department and the environment office should advise appropriately on mining in Kabiru-ini forest, he said.

"I would never support any move which is detrimental to the environment," he said.

Provincial geologist Julius Nyagah Mwabu blames destruction of the forest on the mining Act, established in 1940. Under the Act, one does not need a licence to exploit common minerals such as building stones, sand and ballast.

"Many quarries have been started in a haphazard manner owing to this. They are also unregulated," he says.

Give miners conditions

Many miners have little if any technical knowledge on personal safety, leading to frequent accidents.

"If there was a law regulating the industry, we would give miners certain conditions. But now the best we can do is to advise them and hope they take heed," says Mr Mwabu.

A new Bill which could give the department teeth in regulating mining will soon be tabled in Parliament.

Meanwhile, as various government departments continue passing the blame, the forest is under attack from expanding quarries.

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