Kenya should encourage private businesses to grow trees for charcoal and timber to increase its forest cover rather than relying on the rehabilitation of indigenous forests, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Kenya Forestry Service (KFS) said on Monday.
Deforestation is a major problem in Kenya and its agriculture-dominated economy is highly vulnerable to drought. Less than 6 percent of the country is under forest cover although the 2010 constitution aims to increase this figure to 10 percent.
Until now, the focus has been on rehabilitating its indigenous forests, which have been decimated by illegal allocations under previous governments, illegal charcoal production, logging, marijuana cultivation, livestock grazing and human settlement.
Five indigenous mountain forests, including Mount Kenya, the Aberdares and the Mau Forest, provide 75 percent of the country's renewable surface water. Between 2000 and 2010, 28,400 hectares of trees were lost in these natural water towers, often through "land grabbing" by politically powerful people, such as former president Daniel arap Moi.
There have since been efforts to repossess and rehabilitate this land. Last year, a 400km electrified fence was built around the Aberdares and there have been high profile public tree-planting campaigns.
However, David Mbugua, head of the Kenya Forestry Service, said this approach will not solve the problem.
"If we only concentrate on replanting our protected forests, we can hardly move a notch higher than probably 4 percent," he said at a press conference on Monday.
"If we have to go to 10 percent we have got to start growing trees - and I am talking about growing not planting trees - in our agricultural landscapes. We have to move tree growing to the agricultural landscape and do it as a business."
He said the government should encourage investment in commercial tree growing by providing incentives, like tax breaks and waivers of fees.
There is a huge demand for wood products in Kenya. Three-quarters of its 40 million people rely on charcoal and wood for domestic energy. Household demand has doubled in the last 10 years.
"What we want to do to is make charcoal a legal business and we want to do it by regulating the producers, the transporters and also the marketers," said Mbugua.
"Once you bring in a measure of order, then you are likely to attract private investments."
The previous government banned logging in Kenya's plantation forests in 1999 in a bid to combat rampant loss of tree cover. This ban was overturned two years ago in recognition of the fact that it increased illegal extraction and destroyed jobs.
Mbugua was speaking at the launch of a joint UNEP and KFS report which shows that deforestation cost Kenya $68 million in 2010, largely through reduced water supply for irrigation agriculture and hydropower generation. This is four times the amount earned by the illegal loggers.
"Although illegal logging is profitable to a few, it is very expensive to the nation," said UNEP's executive director Achim Steiner.
Almost half of Kenya's power comes from hydroelectric dams. When the rains fail, the government is forced to resort to electricity rationing and expensive imported diesel generators.
"If you don't have water in your hydropower system, then you don't produce energy, then the lights go out with enormous costs to the Kenyan economy," said Steiner.
"We have seen that happen at least in the last six, seven years on at least two occasions."
The report's coordinator, Thierry De Oliveira, was critical of the U.N.'s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) + initiative, which pays communities to conserve trees. It pays $6 per ton, far less than the $20 per ton earned through the sale of timber.