First published Saturday Standard, May 19, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group
Last week, the Environment Ministry’s spirited #PandaMitiPendaKenya campaign rallied Kenyans to plant over a billion trees and restore Kenya’s depleted forest cover. The excellent campaign comes in the wake of recent reports that emphasize the importance of locally driven forest conservation efforts.
Forests are at the heart of our current economy and future survival. The recently completed Taskforce report on Forest Management and Logging estimates our forests contribute 7 billion shillings per annum and employs 50,000 and 300,000 people directly and indirectly respectively. Trees and especially the Cedar tree is big business for some.
We lose 5,000 hectares of tree cover or if you like, 5,000 rugby pitches each year, to commercial logging, illegal encroachment and infrastructure. Ten counties namely Narok, Nakuru, Kilifi, Lamu, Kwale, Elgeyo-Marakwet, Kericho, Nandi, Uasin Gishu and Baringo are responsible for the greatest losses.
Our forests hold our water towers and are directly responsible for all the water that is available for human consumption and our entire eco-system. We lose 62 million cubic litres of water each year due to deforestation. Put it another way, every year, 4,300 Kenyans lose their complete access to water. Left unchecked, Kenya will join Egypt and other water stressed North African countries in under ten years
The Taskforce also found the very agency assigned the duty of protecting our forest culpable of involvement in corruption and widespread logging. In a rare and decisive action, Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko braved the cartels, disbanded the Kenya Forestry Services Board, sent senior officers packing for abuse of office and implemented a 90 day ban on commercial logging.
Contestation over the exploitation and conservation of our forests stems back to colonialism. At the heart of this, has been the rights of indigenous peoples and forest-dwelling communities like the Sengwer and the Ogiek of the Embobut and Mau forests. These and other communities have lived, worshipped, harvested and restored our forests for a century.
Indigenous people are recognized in our constitution and international rights standards. The term indigenous does not mean these communities came first. Rather, an indigenous community lives as a collective, has a spirituality and a culture that depends on their access and rights to their traditional forest lands and natural resources. It also recognizes that they have been historically marginalized by central government. Denying these communities access to their subsistence economy threatens to extinguish their very identity.
Having dominated the January headlines, the forced evictions of the Sengwer were revisited this week in a new Amnesty International report that documents the use of excessive force and state violence by the Kenya Forestry Service. Over the last five months, Government has justified the evictions as a military operation to stop banditry, a forestry conservation program and more recently that the Sengwer no longer strictly depend on the forest for their livelihoods. There is a tragic irony that glares at the nation here.
Since January 2014, Kenya Forestry Service rangers burnt down 2,531 forest based dwellings in 76 incidents, killed at least one person, injured tens of others and made thousands homeless. Suffering, destitution, cutting down of more trees to build new homes and disruption of traditional practices of community based forest management has been the impact. To add more pain to injury, Sengwer attempts to denounce illegal logging by companies and KFS collusion in 2015 were ignored. It is absurd to expect this community, after all that has happened to them, to have a consistent strategy and investment towards conserving the forest
Correcting injustices against the Sengwer must include prosecution of all state officers who abused their office and used excessive force to evict hundreds of families against their will. In the light of the Forestry Management Taskforce, Amnesty International Kenya and the soon to be completed Kenya National Human Rights Commission reports, Elgeyo Marakwet Governor Tolgos must urgently convene an inclusive dialogue of national and county actors.
Community forest management and ownership is globally recognized as the most sustainable model for forest conservation. Asking 47 million Kenyans to plant 1.5 billion trees and not hold the very same communities accountable for their nurture and protection doesn’t make sense.
The forest dependent and indigenous peoples of Kenya are easy allies for the state. Instead of forced evictions, the state must move to create partnerships with them for our forests. The rest of us must continue to plant trees in our farms, gardens and remaining urban green spaces while the rains continue to pound. This is the only way to move Kenya from #Grey2Green.