What you need to know:
- For a long time now, Kenya has been losing its forest cover at an alarming rate through officially sanctioned excisions.
- What happened to the Mau forest Complex is a good example of how policies meant to benefit the poor have over time been abused with devastating consequences.
- The shamba system, if not organised well, will lead to negative effects that will eventually hurt us all.
As a lad, I had a healthy inquisitive disposition with a contradictory penchant for taking long walks in protected forests and then burying my head in a forest of books.
The first was made possible by my frequent visits to my elder brother’s workstations in various forests where he was a senior officer, during which I took long walks for no particular reason.
Communing with nature in this fashion has not deserted me to date, for it is quite invigorating.
That is how I wound up exploring the peripheries of Geta Forest in Nyandarua, Mutarakwa in Kinangop, and Elgeyo Marakwet Forest near Eldoret, the last of which turned out to be my favourite because it had an abundance of indigenous trees.
I would saunter around and even sip the cool, clean water of a rivulet here and there, which was very restorative to the soul. My love for Mother Nature, therefore, started early and has not waned though nowadays I no longer want to curl under a tree with a novel.
Today, I don’t think there are many such forests still surviving; they have been replaced by cypress tree plantations that have lost all the allure of the wild.
All the undergrowth that made a trek adventurous is gone. Of course, the bigger animals like antelopes have vanished, and you will no longer see monkeys that used to cavort among the tree branches.
Forests are vital for the survival of humankind. To the sceptics, this is arrant nonsense, for trees are meant to provide timber for building, and firewood and charcoal for cooking with. But to those who know better, forests prevent soil erosion, replenish the underground streams (aquifers), filter the water we drink, and mitigate climate change by absorbing the carbon dioxide and other pollutants we emit, in exchange for the oxygen we breathe.
They are the natural habitats of wildlife and other fauna which organise the ecosystem. Felling forests leads to disruptions that destroy many creatures.
In 2012, a politician argued that there is no relationship between trees and rain, saying that rain comes from God. Of course, he was playing election-year politics, but he may have convinced a few of his fellow deniers.
That, obviously, was dangerous talk, for forests play a huge role in attracting rain. All plants transpire during photosynthesis and the vapour produced rises to the atmosphere where it condenses into droplets that then fall down to earth as rain.
As a result, the more trees there are in an area, the more rain there will be, which is why we are always encouraged to plant trees.
For a long time now, Kenya has been losing its forest cover at an alarming rate through officially sanctioned excisions.
The justification was the so-called shamba system in which people who live close to protected forests are allowed to clear the undergrowth and cultivate a few plots for subsistence farming so long as they plant and tend to tree seedlings until they mature.
This proved to be very popular, the only problem being that the chance for peasants to grow their own food under strict guidance was grossly abused and vast areas of forest land were alienated and destroyed.
That is why the system was banned back in 1986 when it emerged that instead of helping the poor, government land was actually being grabbed by the rich and powerful.
Unfortunately, the ban was lifted barely eight years later, with the result that Kenya’s largest natural forest, the Mau Complex, came close to extinction.
Thankfully, after great pressure from environmentalists, the ban was reinstated in 2003 when it emerged that some greedy fellows in the Kenya Forest Service had colluded with fat cats to excise huge swathes and sell the land to smallholders who never bothered to plant any trees.
What happened to the Mau forest Complex is a good example of how policies meant to benefit the poor have over time been abused with devastating consequences.
One only needs to remember the damage wrought on the country’s most important water tower, the Mau Forest Complex, in the past 50 years, and the misery visited on people who had been tricked into settling in it while being evicted.
The Mau supports the lives and livelihoods of millions in western Kenya and parts of Tanzania, and if the seven rivers that originate from it dry up as they have been doing due to wanton deforestation, the damage done will be irreversible.
That is why last Saturday’s announcement by Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua that the government was mulling the idea of restoring the shamba system came as such a shock to many.
Although he clarified on Thursday that he had been misquoted and had only spoken about the government’s commitment to reforestation, even if it is true that Kenya suffers from a food deficit, allowing peasants to mow down trees so they can grow maize is not the answer.
The shamba system, if not organised well, will lead to negative effects that will eventually hurt us all.
Mr Ngwiri is a consultant editor; [email protected]