Nairobi — In 2010 and 2009, Kenya lost a whopping 5.8 billion Kenya shillings (US$68 million) and 6.6 billion shillings ($77 million), respectively, to deforestation, a new report released by the government and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reveals.
This is despite the fact that forestry-related commercial activities brought just 1.3 billion shillings into the national economy in the same period.
In calculating the losses, the researchers took into account: the effect of decreased river flow on irrigation; the incidence of malaria resulting from deforestation; the loss of productive soils caused by erosion; the effect of reduced water quality on inland fishing; and the above-ground carbon storage value lost.
The report further reveals that the country has long undervalued the contribution of forests to its GDP. That contribution is currently estimated to be 1.1 percent, but the report holds that forests actually contribute about 3.6 percent to the country's GDP.
Experts say the country - rather that concentrating on managing and preserving government-owned forests - should focus on increasing agroforestry and promoting commercial tree farming.
"The government must start to give incentives to farmers to [plant more] trees on their farms [rather] than solely concentrating on protecting government-owned forests. Only such efforts will help increase our forest cover and achieve our target of realizing at least 10 tree cover," David Ngugi, director of the Kenya Forest Services, said.
"People will be willing to invest more in forests and trees if they know they can earn a decent living out of it."
The government has largely concentrated protection efforts on water catchment areas known as the five "water towers" - the Mau Forest Complex, Mount Kenya, the Aberdares, Mount Elgon and Cheranganyi Hills - which together supply much of the country's water.
While communities are capable of growing trees and saving forests, the challenge, experts say, lies in meeting the energy demand of some 75 percent of the population who rely on wood fuel and charcoal as a source of energy.
"Farmers are capable of growing trees on their farms and at the same time preserving forests, but the desperation to have energy at times overwhelms their efforts. There is need to make other sources of energy more affordable, especially to rural communities," Achim Steiner, UNEP executive director said.
The main reasons for deforestation are unregulated charcoal production, logging of indigenous trees, marijuana cultivation, livestock grazing and human settlements.
According to the Kenya Forest Service, just 6.2 percent of Kenya's total land area is covered with forests.
Dwindling water resources, resulting from forest depletion, will affect the push to increase irrigated agriculture. "It is obvious that Kenya as a country will not be able to meet its food security targets unless it can promote water for irrigation to smallholder farmers," Ngugi said.