Kenya: Forest degradation and the way ahead for conservation efforts

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Environmental degradation seems to have taken a sad toll in Kenya. As many as 12 people were killed in a landslide at Kanyakine, Meru Central District, where deforestation has laid bare hill slopes where trees used to perform the function of holding the soil together. That and other concerns related to environmental degradation has put conservation of forests as one of today's hottest items on the national agenda. Deforestation has been so intense that some people believe that the estimate that only 10 per cent of Kenya's original forest cover remains, is optimistic.

Parallel to this, General Peter Ikenye has been appointed to deal with forest conservation, in what may appear to be a move to appease public concerns. He will have to deal, on the one hand, with the strong clique involved with legal and illegal logging which has led Kenyan forest to depletion, and on the other hand with hundreds of thousands of displaced forest peoples as well as squatters, settlers and landless people who have been forced into the forest out of very poor living conditions.

However, the greatest stumbling block to forest conservation appears to be the lack of political will to save the Kenyan forest and the simple explanation is that the most powerful peoples in this country are also the biggest enemies of its woodland (see WRM Bulletin 55).

Within that context, the Kenyan government will have to identify new mechanisms to protect forests --if it has the political will to do so. Those new mechanisms will necessarily entail some type of symbiotic relationship between forests and neighbouring communities and examples on sustainable management of forests by local communities certainly exist: among others, the Ogiek people can provide a very good example on this.

At the same time, many forest areas need to be restored and in this sense a local journalist points at the right direction by saying that "there is no point in filling our country exclusively with exotic trees", while calling on Environment minister Joseph Kamotho to lead the nation in establishing nurseries of indigenous trees and planting them. The question is: will the Kenyan government apply the prevailing large-scale monoculture alien tree plantation scheme so strongly advocated by corporate economic interests? Or will it take a bold action and promote a genuine reforestation programme with native trees in partnership with local communities?

Article based on information from: “Can Our Forests Breathe At Last?”, Mutuma Mathiu, The Nation (Nairobi), May 5, 2002; Project Report, Community Awareness on Indigenous Forests and Their Value; The Mau Forest Project, Forest Action Network (FAN),