The trees of Kenya have recently become a battleground for the country’s executive and judicial branches of government. President William Ruto recently lifted a six-year logging ban, saying it was “foolish” to have mature trees rotting in forests while local industries lacked timber. “This is why we have decided to open up the forest and harvest timber so that we can create jobs for our youth,” he said. Kenya’s Environment and Land Court responded by swiftly issuing a temporary suspension of the president’s order. On either ends of the seesaw are the lumber industry and the environmentalists.
In February 2018, former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta imposed a ban on logging on public land. The aim was to combat illegal logging, which had ravaged 173,000 acres (70,000 hectares) of forest annually, according to a report by the United Nations Environment Program. The ban also aimed to increase the country’s tree coverage to 10%. According to Kenya’s 2020 National Economic Survey, the country’s forested area expanded from 350,000 acres (141,600 hectares) to 363,000 acres (147,600 hectares) in the first year of the ban. Given President Ruto’s supposed commitment to tackling climate change, his decision to lift the ban came as a surprise to Kenyan conservationists.
The Environment and Land Court’s suspension of the president’s order followed a petition by the Law Society of Kenya, which argued that lifting the ban was not based on scientific evidence or environmental impact studies. Greenpeace and other environmental protection organizations warned of the “devastating” consequences for climate change that lifting the ban could have. Some claim that Kenya has not reached the goals set in 2018 when the ban went into effect. According to Marion Kamau, former president of the Green Belt Movement, Kenya’s tree coverage stands at only 8%. The Green Belt Movement was established by Kenyan Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai in 1977, and has successfully planted over 51 million trees nationwide. “We’re worried about cutting down trees again before we’ve reached the goal of 10% tree coverage,” said Kamau. The government is trying to placate everyone by pledging to achieve 12% tree coverage by 2030, surpassing the initial target by 2%. One of President Ruto’s main campaign promises was to plant a staggering 15 billion trees in the coming decade.
During the ongoing dispute, environmental activists have raised concerns about illegal logging and its impact on native plants and trees like the baobab. According to government regulations, only non-Indigenous trees older than 30 years, such as pine, eucalyptus and cypress, could be cut down. A truckload of Euphorbia Candelabrum, an Indigenous tree commonly used in construction, is being sold for just $5 dollars (€4.60) in certain parts of the country. Colin Jackson, director of A Rocha, a Kenyan conservation organization, strongly hopes that the ban will not be lifted again. “We don’t trust that [if the Court allows logging again] the government will be able to ensure that only specific types of trees are being cut,” he said. Marion Kamau agrees. “Africans recognize the medicinal properties and high value of our native trees, unlike in other parts of the world. Unfortunately, these trees are specifically targeted [for logging] more than any other type.”
Meanwhile, the logging industry eagerly anticipates the ban being lifted. The forestry sector contributes 3.6% to Kenya’s gross domestic product (GDP) and provides direct employment to 18,000-50,000 people, along with indirect employment to 300,000-600,000 people. Since the 2018 logging ban, Kenya has lost 44,000 jobs, and lumber sales have plummeted from 144,200 cubic meters to 10,700, an alarming 92.5% decrease, according to the Forestry Society of Kenya.
Caught in the middle are individuals who have spent their entire lives in Kenya’s forests and make a living from logging. Francis Kinuthia Ndegwa has always lived in Ruaka, on the outskirts of the Karura Forest (an urban forest in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya) that Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai saved from property developers in 1999. An independent woodcutter for over 20 years, he said, “I’m really glad they’ve allowed logging now, but we should keep in mind that it won’t be allowed forever. They’ll temporarily lift the ban, we’ll cut down some trees, and then they’ll reinstate it.” Ndegwa also admitted that logging has continued over the years despite the ban. “We still cut down trees in secret,” he said, claiming to have received orders for timber from a Kenyan politician. Concerned about the destruction in his community, Ndegwa encourages replanting trees but said it’s difficult to find other ways of making a living in the logging-dependent regions of Kenya.
The Kenya Forest Service says that they have implemented an automated system to issue logging permits and a detailed control plan to ensure compliance by loggers. According to spokesperson Annie Kaare, there have been no reports of illegal deforestation on public land. Each permit allows an annual maximum of 12,355 acres (5,000 hectares) to be logged and the government benefits from the resulting tax revenue. The Kenya Forest Service stated that all logged areas are replanted. Since the ban was lifted, Kaare said that approximately 7,400 acres (3,000 hectares) have been logged, starting with the most mature trees.
Robert Gacheru, a farmer and self-proclaimed environmental activist, argues that logging is an essential economic activity that must be balanced with environmental considerations. “In Kenya, we’re actually importing lumber and, on top of that, the trucks that transport it are using fossil fuels, which means they’re polluting the environment. So, you see, simply banning logging isn’t really a solution. If we can find a balance between cutting trees, planting new ones, and meeting the demand, then count me in favor of that.”
Source: English Elpais