Alarm over rise of illegal weed farms in protected forests

A bhang plantation in Gwassi Forest,  Homa Bay County on May 10.


What you need to know:

  • The forests of Mount Elgon, Aberdares and the Mau are among the newly identified hotspots.
  • Farmers and crime syndicates, driven by high demand and lucrative profits, have cleared vast tracts of land to grow bhang and food crops.

Under the dense canopies of Kenya’s forests lies a thriving trade in the cultivation of narcotics under the nose of law enforcement agencies.

Vast plantations of bhang, a narcotic plant classified under Kenyan law as a prohibited substance, are being cultivated in clandestine farms, raising concerns about public health and environmental degradation.

For years, bhang farming has often been associated with semi-arid areas like the shorezs of Lake Victoria and the eastern slopes of Mount Kenya. However, recent events have uncovered the expansive plantations established deep within protected forests, areas typically reserved for wildlife conservation and biodiversity preservation.

Two weeks ago on May 10, as the country marked the national tree-planting day, forest rangers and a handful of government officials led Kenyans on a reforestation mission inside Gwassi Forest in Homa Bay County.  What they found shocked them. They stumbled upon a clearing where tens of acres of trees had been felled and bhang planted in their stead.  “We thought different sections of the forest had trees. We were, however, surprised to find bhang and vegetables in some parts,” Suba Deputy County Commissioner Sebastian Okiring said.

In the days that followed, the administrator and officials from other government agencies spent their time uprooting the plants from 30 acres of forestland. Chemicals were also used to ensure regermination does not occur.

“We are hunting for the people behind this illegal trade,” Mr Okiring said.  Gwassi Forest is just one among many areas where such activities have been discovered. In some cases, arrests have been made.

The forests of Mount Elgon, Aberdares and the Mau are among the newly identified hotspots.

Farmers and crime syndicates, driven by high demand and lucrative profits, have cleared vast tracts of land to grow bhang and food crops.

These illegal activities threaten the ecosystems and undermines national efforts to combat deforestation and climate change. Pesticides and fertilisers in these farms can also pollute water sources and harm native wildlife. For Gwassi Forest, questions remain over how 30 acres of forest could be cleared and how the logged trees could be carried away without the notice of security agencies.

“The people responsible for this trade took their time to engage in logging before introducing foreign plants inside the forest,” Okiring said.

Most forests in Homa Bay County are fragile, and illegal logging is the main threat. They include Kodera, Wire, Lambwe, Gwassi and Rangwa.

Aberdare Forest 2020
Aberdare Forest 2023

Aberdare Forest.

Credit: Google Earth

In Suba, which is generally hilly and has many forests, some residents have encroached on forestland and established settlements.

On April 28, a landslide was witnessed in Kaksingri West location, just on the edge of Gwassi Forest. The region also witnessed landslides with heavy boulders, some as big as a saloon car, rolling down from the hilltop. Four people, including three members of the same family, died during the tragedy. It was revealed that the phenomenon happened as a result of environmental degradation. Mr Willis Omullo, the chairman of Aluora Makare, an environment advocacy group in Homa Bay, said human activity increasingly provokes fatal landslides.

Mr Nahason Moseti witnessed the event first-hand and said he was tilling his land when the sky turned dark. It then started raining. He took shelter on the veranda of a nearby building. After a while, and to his utter shock and horror, he saw trees ripped from the earth by their roots and ruthlessly tossed downhill.

Mau Forest 2014
Mau Forest 2023

Mau Forest.

Credit: Google Earth

“Huge rocks tumbled downhill at great speed, dragging everything in their path. [The noise they made] was as if an aeroplane was passing nearby,” he said.

Mr Daniel Okanga, a resident, said his brother lost three children.

“Most people who lost their homes now spend their night in their neighbours’ houses. Besides financial limitations, some people are unsure whether it is safe to return and rebuild their lives,” Mr Okanga said.

Such disasters are often traceable to environmental destruction such as the wanton clearing of forests for bhang cultivation. Authorities are facing significant obstacles in combating this destruction. The remote locations and dense forest cover provide ideal hiding spots for the criminals, making surveillance and enforcement exceedingly difficult.

Mt. Elgon Forest 2014
Mt. Elgon Forest 2023

Mt. Elgon Forest.

Credit: Google Earth

Moreover, corruption within law enforcement agencies often hampers effective action. In some cases, officials are complicit in the illegal business. Suba South MP Caroli Omondi said he had been informed of the situation in Gwassi Forest and had written to the Environment ministry seeking intervention. “I have also asked for help from other environmental agencies. We need to ensure the forests and hills are conserved,” Mr Omondi said.

“Instead of growing bhang, why don’t you grow fruits which can be sold and used as a major source of income for families living near the forests? I am ready to support this initiative,” Mr Omondi said.

 Efforts to dismantle these illegal operations are ongoing. The Kenya Forest Service, in collaboration with the National Authority for the Campaign Against Drug and Alcohol Abuse and the police, has initiated several raids in the past year, destroying bhang plantations worth millions of shillings.

However, the challenging terrain and the growers’ increasing sophistication in evading detection have often hampered these efforts.

Eradicating these hidden farms requires a multi-pronged approach. Increased forest patrols and stricter enforcement of narcotics laws are crucial first steps. Public awareness campaigns can help educate Kenyans about the dangers of bhang use and the importance of forest conservation. Transport Cabinet Secretary Kipchumba Murkomen, who also attended the exercise in Gwassi, said his ministry will ensure that the Gembe Forest cover is increased.

Mr Murkomen said his ministry would protect the forest from illegal logging and other practices that could reduce the tree cover.

He directed parastatals under the ministry, including the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority, Kenya Railways and Kenya Airports Authority to develop initiatives to protect the forest, which is considered a critical water catchment area in Homa Bay County.

“We will source for a token and give them for planting and protecting trees. This country is beautiful, and there needs to be increased efforts to save trees in Homa Bay,” he said.  Up to 100,000 trees were planted in the forest on that day.