A forest has many definitions. Some define it as an ecological landscape dominated by trees and woody vegetation. From some enlightened folk has been issued the explanation about a complex interaction of wood, herbaceous flora, fauna, soil and other factors. The simplest one is a tree-dominated area, verdant land. I remember back in the day when I was still in primary school honing the writing skill that I proudly display today, we wrote many essays on the topic ‘The Importance of Forests’ and ‘Faida ya Miti.’ We yapped on end about forests being water catchment areas, sources of food and medicine, the habitat of many common and rare flora and fauna, they are our carbon sinks to reduce air pollution and the source of the oxygen we breathe. They also hold our Terra-firma so as not to be eroded into the rivers and seas which we have no contract to supply with our fertile agriculturally potent soil, they have economic value as source of timber for construction and furniture, also a source of fuel. They are additionally a tourist attraction as it is not all countries that are endowed with tropical rain forests, mangrove forests, bamboo forests, heath and moorlands and what not. They invariably provide us with revenue that will be vital to run our economy. Forests form a natural barrier between the domestic and the jungle habitats. All these essential oils like chamomile, mint, sage and olive oil required for cosmetic, medicinal and culinary value are reaped from these same forests. Not to forget tannin that turns skin into leather. For the coastal communities, who does not appreciate the potency of the local brew ‘mnazi.’
Despite all these great uses to humanity and all terrestrial life, the agents tasked with the protection of our natural resources apparently missed out on writing such essays due to some omission or commission on their part! So do their actions which seem to betray such a systemic chasm in their understanding of the same. When I was in Primary School forest cover in Kenya stood at a measly 8.3%. Initiatives were being pontificated to aggressively build on this level. Political leaders traversed this country preaching about the same to every rapt audience in attendance. Unfortunately, they did more talking than acting as consequent to all their efforts by the year 2011 we were down to 7.75%, a damning indictment on their efforts. On such a trajectory we may have burnt through our entire forest cover by the next generation. This is no doubt a cause for alarm.
We all remember the monumental task that our very own Nobel-Peace Laureate Prof. Wangari Maathai made her life’s work and passion. Most of us appreciate the noble efforts she made to stop the monument to nihilism and vanity that was to be built at Uhuru Park which would have invalidated the existence of the only green space that we have as the splendour of our capital city. She in great conviction also stood her ground to prevent the wanton and inordinate grabbing and distribution of our great heritage to the Mau-Mau revolution, the Karura forest. I am not just speaking from an emotional standpoint though as I have personally visited the woodland that is home to the caves and bunkers where our independence heroes hid while in bits and pieces hewing down the colonial juggernaut out of our nation. Imagine if all this would have been pilfered to the concrete jungle that is the construction of high-end rental apartments and real-estate for a few people’s narrow economic gain. All the fresh air, meditation zones (for the peace of mind), biking tracks and camping grounds for family and friend’s bonding lost and for what? The long and short of it is that our dear matriarch of jungle conservation was clobbered but her spirit remain unbowed and she inspired the local and international community to ensure not an inch of that prime natural air freshener was lost. She eventually got her Nobel Prize but which pays credence to these efforts she launched all over our nation. She once uttered sentiments to the effect, “nature can be quite unforgiving, if we allow greedy and corrupt individuals to destroy our forests then nature will hit back with an unmitigated vengeance and we deserve whatever misfortune that will ever befall us.” The Veterinary doctor had to literally protect Karura forest and Uhuru Park from annihilation against formidable opposition from State actors. She also put in motion a consciousness in many Kenyans for environmental conservation. Now we have environment and tree planting clubs in almost every school, youth groups and many companies have in place Corporate Social Responsibility policies that emphasize the same. For every tree that is cut down we should always aspire to plant two.
There are already journals to suggest the link between forest cover and availability of rainfall so it is no longer a myth that forests draw rainfall. One such can be found here: https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/59/4/341/346941 In Geography we were taught that forested land has a higher evapo-transpiration rate than the sea. When the water heats up and converts into vapour wafting upwards, the cool air comes from the sea to replenish it filling the vacuum occasioned by that process. In the absence of forests, dry land has less moisture which inverts the hydrological cycle so that the sea has a higher evaporation than land. A pseudo-vacuum is formed over the sea and air has to move from land to take up that space. This movement no doubt pushes clouds away from land reducing the proclivity of dry lands to getting rainfall. I rest my case there.
The recent pronouncement by our Deputy President, William S. Ruto issuing a moratorium on logging in our nationally gazetted forests was no doubt a step in the right direction. But as we all know this same character resisted such efforts when once-upon-a-time (loosely translating to the year 2009), his then superior the Right Honourable Prime Minister Raila Odinga spearheaded efforts to evict squatters from Mau forest and other forest areas in an effort save our water catchment areas. Ruto proffered profuse yet pedestrian lamentations about protecting the livelihoods of the inhabitants of that forest who were mainly from his core political base. He played the politics of impunity at a crucial epoch in history and nature has proven unforgiving. When today, he is in the seat of power and a heart-beat away from the presidency he faces a more profound quandary of dry river beds even in hitherto apparent paradises of greenery like Kericho. This begs the question, what would Mr. Ruto have lost had he supported Mr. Odinga’s efforts in 2009? Wasn’t it better for those vaunted and much needed efforts to have been commenced earlier rather than later? But I digress. That is now water under the proverbial bridge. What I try to reiterate is the importance of Government’s Political will in the face of such an egregious threat.
The wheels of any national undertaking can only turn consequent to lubrication with the grease of Political will and sound policy by the Government of the day.
Despite Constitutional obligations enshrined in the Bill of Rights Chapter 4 Article 42 and Chapter 5 Article 70 bequeathing upon us the Right to a reasonably clean and enforcement of sustainable practices to protect our environment, only Political Will by State players will make that notion a reality. In her memoir, ‘Unbowed’ Prof. Wangari Maathai quipped about Liberties not being things that are set on some table in a silver platter for all and sundry to enjoy but are hard-fought and afterwards contingency has to be made to jealously and with great vigilance safeguard them. The sagacity in her conviction is now on show for all to see and no one can dare doubt its authenticity. Climate change is the reality of our time. Dry seasons are more severe and the wet even more pronounced and miserable. We are now experiencing near temperate conditions where Hot Seasons are torrid escalating into heat waves while Cold Seasons become frigid and frosty as to make us question whether we also passed the chill within the constitution without reading the referendum’s fine print! A few weeks ago most of Nairobi, previously dubbed the city in the sun was covered in murk and knee-deep water much to the consternation of all much worse the people who constructed multi-million shilling homes on wetlands. Much as Civil Engineers have taken much of the flak for constructing roads with poor drainage, as per empirical wisdom the heavy dumping of precipitation can no doubt overwhelm even our best designed infrastructure. Some bridges were rendered impassable and even Our World famous bridge at the View point of the Western Rift Valley in Maai-Mahiu was cracked by a combination of tectonic-plate movements and the heavy rainfall effect that inundated the adjacent substratum. All this would have been forestalled or at least its impact abated with a larger herbal mat but as the wise man put it pride comes before a fall, if you fail to plan you plan to fail.
As I have put it in a previous blog what is happening in Kenya is not unique. I will take excerpts from the same: Let me present an anecdotal example. Our minds float across the oceans and we land on Easter Island in the South Eastern Pacific Ocean. This is the tragic tale of how people who took great pride on the illusion of grandeur over all else built monumental statues each to his honour. The landscape dotted with statues which are now a sight to behold but some lie prostrate and without their former lustre. These used to be called Rapa-annui. Men and women cut down the dense forests they were endowed with just to gain more land for the statue building and the accompanying colossal structures of domicile. In fact the principle objective was surreal as to boggle your mind – To create pathways for the Statues’ conveyance by means of rollers. Environmental degradation consequent to these activities led to them losing their agriculturally potent and verdant land. They also lost the trees that would have been valuable to make canoes for their escape from that wasteland. Cornered they turned on each other, engaging in out-of this world macabre competitions and rituals just to survive. They were to a man exterminated. Before the inevitable extinction they equally turned on the same idyllic statues they carved out for themselves. Today that land is unsuitable for habitation and UNESCO named it a World heritage site, to chronicle what havoc the unfettered love for primitive accumulation and infantile destruction of resource can wreak on a nation.
What are we to do to replenish our tree cover? First and foremost this is a task too heavy to saddle onto the already overburdened shoulders of the government, even with their capacity to mobilize resources and what not. Our nationwide pastime of sticking our heads in the sand cannot gain any traction here. But still I will throw onto the government’s court the ball to provide subsidized renewable energy sources to prevent all this rampant burning of charcoal and logging for firewood. I also call for a Private-Public Partnership on both the eco-friendly alternative energy side and the tree planting initiative. For now we are all residents of this Earth. If we render it hostile and uninhabitable we have nowhere else to take sojourn. What destiny will we bequeath to our progeny in generations to come? Economic empowerment is also key in this regard.
In the Saturday Standard of the 10th March 2018; my role-model and exceptional former high school-mate, an inimitably intellectually endowed one-man think tank who professionally serves as an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University, Washington D.C, Kennedy Opalo had interesting insight on an opinion column he authors. Sharing an alma-mater, the guy was two classes ahead of myself so I call to mind his absolute aversion to academic mediocrity, second to none every time the Prize giving ceremony was around the corner. He offered optimism that reforestation is possible but only if a tactical, scientifically viable approach is used. In his recollection he gave the example of South Korea that had lost almost all its forest cover to logging during periods of Japanese colonization and the Korean war. At the inception of a visionary leader millions of acreage of trees were planted with the Government keen to stem any dissent from ‘cartels’ and industrialists who use excuses to engage in illegal logging. Government Policy on replenishment of forest cover was not a matter to be put to debate. Today 63.4 % of South Korea is under forest cover. The strategy was to have a 10 year plan with planting trees of value to the local populations. Nut bearing trees were grown for nutritional value while Chestnuts grown for fuel. Fast growing tree varieties were the catalytic precocity of the entire program. Rainy Seasons were not let to go to waste as this was the prime tree planting period. The first Saturday of November was designated the National forest tending day. What did they achieve? A forest cover slightly smaller than the size of our second-biggest county, Marsabit most of it privately-owned. To achieve this in Kenya, we need a tailored strategy that ensures less of our land is put under food production and real estate. A statement that we have a problem that transcends all our political and ethnic affiliation will be a good precursor. A radical reorganization of how we use land will be required. No complaints touching on our racial pride being Africans who often feel the need to divide all available land till there is not even a path to traverse each piece, No! Just an objective look at the sustainable ways to gain more from what little we have. Economic empowerment of the populace is important so as no one feels the need to encroach into forests to produce charcoal then like a windmill wave logging licenses at whoever questions his actions. Research and extension services will come in handy to disseminate newer and better ways to commercialize trees.
PS: I feel a tinge of dismay for all the entrepreneurs who lost their trucks to arson and vandalism for venturing and engaging in tree cutting and haulage in a neighbouring county but even more do I extol the Governor who stood firm not allowing the already degraded forest cover under her jurisdiction to be petered any further to the detriment of the local economy. It all boils down to magnanimity and objectivity instead of careless fluttering of fraudulently acquired or in solidarity with the plight of the guys whose lorries were set ablaze, misappropriated ‘tree-murdering’ licences. Environmental Conservation is a task for us all too significant to be devolved to anyone else or merely a singular entity. Let’s all hug trees not hang them!