Trucks ferry logs along the Elburgon-Njoro road in Nakuru County on July 3, 2023. Timber traders have something to smile about after President William Ruto lifted a ban on logging that was issued by the government six years ago. 

| John Njoroge | Nation Media Group

Dear Mr President, timber sales will never justify environmental damage

President William Ruto has ordered the resumption of logging. Had pioneer colonial logger Ewart Grogan been alive, he would have toasted and picked from where he left off in the systematic destruction of Kenya’s forests – disguised as a business.

This year, we silently mark 120 years of wanton destruction of Kenya’s forest and the continued use of this natural resource for political patronage.

Interestingly, we managed to ban hunting of wild animals for trophies, but we have never stopped tree poaching. Forests are the new spaces for greed. There is no audit — and no transparency. A few months ago, Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua had ordered the resumption of the Shamba system, a 1910 colonial system terminated in 2003 via a presidential decree.

The Shamba system, as Prof Wangari Maathai used to argue, promotes the destruction of indigenous forests and their replacement with exotic cypress and eucalyptus.

It was in 1903 when the first forest concessions were given; ever since, our forests have been under siege. You only need to look at the dry riverbeds, where streams used to run, to see the damage. Yet, in international circuits, we are eloquently discussing climate change. Why should Kenyans allow a few political elites to destroy forests?

Gakoe Forest

We still remember that President Jomo Kenyatta cut down part of Gakoe Forest in 1965 and planted tea with the support of the Kenya Tea Development Authority.

Neither have we forgotten that President Moi followed suit in the 1980s when he cut down part of Mau Forest to plant tea in his Kiptagich Estate with the support of Nyayo Tea Zones.

The last time we allowed logging, parts of Nyandarua and Mt Kenya Forests were controlled by narcotic traders who created bhang farms inside the forests.

President Mwai Kibaki stopped harvesting of trees and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga fell out with some Rift Valley politicians for supporting the ban.

Some years back, when the Mau Forest was under siege from Kanu buccaneers, I was taken for a tour by Ogiek community activists to Neisuit, Mauche, Mariashoni, Njoro and deep into the forest to witness the destruction.

 Forest officers, politicians and big timber dealers competed in the harvest, and nobody seemed to care. What later became the Mau Chepalungu (Mauche) Settlement Scheme was cleared by State House barons to create space for a new constituency.

Sadly, we no longer have Prof Wangari Maathai to raise her voice on behalf of the forests. When Karura Forest was under siege by politicians, President Moi stood with the developers.

We have not forgotten that when colonial settler Ewart Grogan was awarded the rights to invade the Mau Forest and cut down timber, he was being used to entice settlers from New Zealand and South Africa in their colonial bid to turn Kenya into what Elspeth Huxley called “White Man’s Country”.

And neither have we forgotten that President Ruto features in the Ndung’u Report in the section on forest-land destruction. The President has said that the former minister in charge of forests was “mjinga” for stopping logging in government forests. Cry.

If you pick up the Ndung’u Report, you will find out how forest lands have been degazetted and excised to allow for logging without considering the ecological implications.

Today, we have forests that have never had titles. These are usually targeted by the timber barons – or as we saw in the case of Karura Forest, by the infamous “private developers” — who included some State House insiders.

We also have gazetted forests. Still, on the ground, the land is bare. Within that barren land, we have a “forest officer” attached to it, whom we pay.

Forests have been a frontier of exploitation. Timber barons have zero input on the trees they cut and no responsibility for replanting. Thanks to wanton destruction, the rivers have run dry, and the environment has been decimated. We continue to score our own goals.

To understand where we are going, it is good to look at where we have come from. The destruction of the forests – and poaching – was done by the same people; the rich and powerful.

The first threat to the forests came from the Uganda Railway, which contracted colonial timber merchants to supply the railway with firewood for its boilers and the railway sleepers. By 1909, there were only three sawmills in Kenya: Equator Sawmills, now known as Timsales, Limuru Sawmills, and the Italian Mission Sawmill.

If you want to know that rogues have decimated the forests, you only need to look at the case of Equator Sawmills.

This was established in 1903 by Dr. A. Eustace Atkinson — a notorious murderer and ivory trader. Atkinson, then 26 and out of medical school, had arrived in the region in the company of Lord Delamere, who was travelling from Egypt with a caravan of 200 camels and 100 rifles. Some settler biographers claim that Delamere dispatched Atkinson to Zanzibar to replenish stock, and the young man found a booming ivory trade.

This transformed the medic into a poacher, and after he returned to Marsabit, he went wild, killing as many elephants as he could. He then headed towards Baringo, where he joined the ivory cartel network of James Martin.

Equator Sawmills

Atkinson would later, in 1902, return to Marsabit hoping to acquire ivory held by the Rendille chief. Unable to get the ivory for a pittance, Atkinson filled a keg with gunpowder, duping the locals that it contained the Maria Theresa dollars, the then currency.

He then lit the fuse, excused himself, and blew up the ivory owners. He then stole the ivory! When the news reached Nairobi, the then Governor, Sir Charles Eliot, sent his official H.R. Tate to investigate, and he found enough evidence to prosecute Dr Atkinson

 But, since the Rendille were not willing to testify against him, he was set free and started Equator Sawmills in Karura Forest– which he later sold to Ewart Grogan.

At one point, Equator Sawmills employed 1,500 Africans and 30 Europeans — among them the aristocrat, Cavendish-Bentinck, who was running the Koinange Street (then Sadler Street) timber yard and office. The then East Africa and Rhodesia directory of settlers described the company as “by far the biggest timber-milling concern and the largest undertaking of its kind in the colony”.

In 1905, Grogan and a Canadian timber merchant F.R. Lingham were allowed to cut down 120,000 acres of Mau Forest near Eldama Ravine. To export the timber, Grogan was given the right to develop a harbour in Mombasa.

Grogan set the pace for how Kenya’s timber industry was to be run. He bullied government officials and paid little to the government in terms of royalties.

The Forest Department spent more on the replanting exercise, and as they could not cope, they introduced the Shamba system in 1910 which offered the department free labour from dispossessed families.

Grogan Mau forest concession

As Lord Cranworth once wrote about the Grogan Mau forest concession: “It was here that private enterprise won its greatest victory, when 300 square miles of forest were alienated to Messrs Lingham and Grogan.”

In later years, the entire modern-day Koinange Street in Nairobi was turned into a timber yard for Equator Sawmills, which had emerged as the largest timber dealer in Kenya.

For many years, nobody thought the Kenya forests could be decimated. The great colonial writer Elspeth Huxley had described Kenya as “a country abounding in forest”. With that thinking in place, the settlers, and the postcolonial barons, made a killing exporting timber and its products.

Grogan would exhibit some of the furniture made from African timber at the Ideal Home Exhibition, sponsored by the Daily Mail in London. Thus, the forests became a cheaper way to make money or create justification for land grabbing in later years.

So lucrative was the trade that a railway line was constructed towards Eldama Ravine to serve the timber merchants. This is credited to Grogan: “It took almost 25 years for him to obtain what he wanted, but as usual he never gave up the fight,” wrote his biographer Leda Ferant.

At the dawn of independence, a question was raised in Parliament on whether it was still profitable to exploit forest timber. The then Minister for Tourism, Forests, and Wildlife Peter Marrian, said that “the basic use of forests for the benefit of this country are more in terms of water conservation and the benefit that conservation makes to agriculture…than actually the sale of timber”.

What Marrian was saying was that cash made from sale of timber cannot justify the damage done to the environment.

Kenya had hoped to put up a paper mill factory, and they managed to put their money into Webuye Pan-Paper mills. This mill has turned into a white elephant.

Kenya Forest Service and its predecessors have been a spectacular failure in resource management. The duplication of power has seen several institutions emerge within the same territory.

Kenya needs environmentalists such as Prof Maathai and Josiah Njonjo, who founded the non-governmental organisation Men of Trees in the 1920s and planted indigenous trees nationwide. Njonjo, as Prof Maathai once said, was inspirational. We no longer have such souls.

When the President asks timber merchants to resume logging — the end is nigh. Dear Mr President, you don’t have to undo everything your predecessors put in place. As Marrian once said in Parliament: The timber sales will never justify the environmental damage.

[email protected] @johnkamau1