Log in our eye: Kenya’s dwindling tree cover


 Asection of the Eldama Ravine - Eldoret road cutting across Koibatek Forest in Baringo county.

Photo credit: Pool I Nation Media Group

The dead branches crackle under the weight of our feet as we make our way into an indigenous forest in Kiptunga, East of the Mau Complex in Nakuru. The air is still. The ground covered with what was left of this morning’s mist staining the toes of our shoes.

At 54, Joseph Lesingo swiftly ambles through the twists and turns in between trees. The crew and I are playing catch-up. Lesingo tells me that he was born here when the forest was mammoth.

He stops momentarily craning his neck up a towering cedar tree.

“ That’s my hive, I set it up there back in 1994, this entire place was covered with vegetation you’d have to clear your path, but that is all gone,” he says pointing to a log-like structure above the tree.

To the naked eye, the hives are camouflaged by the trees, coated in moss and go against every conventional depiction of what a beehive should look like.

It’s honey from the hives above the ground and the wildlife in the forest that sustained the Ogiek an indigenous community that lived in the Mau Forest predating the colonial era

“We venerated the forest, trees mean so much to us such that the 22 clans controlled sections of the Mau and not a tree was felled, but the forest has since changed,” says Lesingo.

We are here three weeks into the lifting of the logging ban by the government to ascertain the extent of damage the revoking of the six-year moratorium has had on the indigenous forests.

Environment Cabinet Secretary Soipan Tuya is on record blaming the Ogiek and Sengwer for looting indigenous trees, a statement that slights Lesingo in part because, back in 2017, the Ogiek community here in the Mau Forest sued the government for wrongful eviction at the African Court of Human and People’s Rights and won.

The government appealed and lost the case in June 2022, and was directed to pay the Ogiek whose number is slightly under 50,000 people, Sh157 million in material and moral damages.

“We are looking for the government to implement the ruling. They should respect the court’s decision and compensate us so that the Ogiek can enjoy the same rights as every other Kenyan,” says Lesingo.

We come across a freshly poached cedar tree, it is an offshoot of another one whose diameter is thicker. The deeper we walked into the forest, it was evident that poaching was rampant, I expected to find swathes of cedar posts lying on the ground but I saw stumps and fallen trees that have been axed to the ground.

“You see this one,” Lesingo summons me to another tree stump on the ground, pointing to identical rugged incisions made on the cedar log.

“ These marks denote that the forest rangers were here, they have spoiled this log so the poacher can’t come back for it.”

Around us, stumps of trees poached old and new abound yet the forest in its benevolence has kept regenerating, but its pace cannot keep up with the demand for wood in the country.

According to the Kenya Forest Service, 2.49 million hectares of land across the country are gazetted forests.

Six per cent of this surface area or 150,000 hectares are plantation forests, which act as a buffer for the indigenous forests. Kenya produces 31.4 million cubic metres of timber annually, from the plantation forest with a deficit of 15.6 million cubic metres.

The Kiptunga Forest is where the Enapuiyapui wetland is located. This is the source of the Mara River. The forest is 10,363 hectares with 1,754 hectares being plantation forests.

We were on-site to witness the harvesting of mature trees by Comply, one of the largest timber manufacturers in the country.

Joseph Ndirangu, forest station manager, says the millers harvesting trees had paid for them before the 2018 logging moratorium.

“The sawmiller has to first report to the forest county conservator, before coming here, we then cross-check his documents to ensure he has paid for what he was allocated upon entry and on exit we inspect to see the logs they have harvested is strictly what is in the plantation,” he said.

On-site are members of communities neighbouring the forest collecting what remains of the fallen trees. For six years, they too were not allowed into the forest, to help with the replenishing of the harvested trees and during that time, an unknown number of indigenous trees were poached as firewood

“ The ban affected us we could not grow food and the lack of employment left people dependent on the indigenous forest,” said David Kipkoech, a Kiptunga Forest Community Association member.

Along the Nakuru-Eldoret highway, Makutano Forest connects Nakuru, Baringo, Kericho and Uasin Gishu counties, the harvesting of exotic trees along the road has elicited public uproar, condemning the government for legitimising environmental degradation.

However, Mr Jared Bitange, the forest station manager here, says the trees are aged and rotting. “These trees are 49 years old and in a normal rotation, we should be having a 20-year-old plantation by now so the government has lost 19 years, leaving this plantation on site and most trees have heart rot,” he says.

For Rael Samoei, treasurer of the Makutano Forets Community Association, the opposition to the lifting of the logging ban does not reflect the reality for those depending on the forest for food and employment in the value chain

“The environmentalists should not just speak from Nairobi, they should come here and see the depth of the work we do and the impact it had when the forest was closed,” she quips.

Kenya Forest Service has defended the harvesting of these exotic trees, saying 26,000 hectares of mature plantation forests risk rotting and resulting in loss of government revenue.

Kenya National Bureau of Statistics’ Economic Survey 2022 shows that the environment and natural resources sector contributed more than Sh430 billion to the economy by the close of 2021, with forestry and logging raising Sh199.8 billion from marketed production, representing two-thirds of the total revenue.

Medium-sized saw millers, like Benard Gitau, lost so much more than their livelihoods in the six years of the ban. He is the chairperson of the 900-member Timber Manufacturers Association. He says some members died due to depression and stress-related complications.

“I was auctioned by the banks because I could not pay my loans. I had to source funds from a shylock’ to revive this sawmill, and my blood pressure went through the roof. I had employed more than 100 people who also lost their jobs,” he says.

Mr Gitau says the sawmilling industry employs close to a million people directly and indirectly.

The Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KMA) says what the country needs is a sustainable management of its forest resources and locking the forests was never the solution in the first place.

“ We are unable to meet our demand as a country, by 2030 we expect to have a shortfall of 25 million cubic metres, “ says Kaberia Kamenchu, chair of the Timber Industry Committee at the KMA.

Samuel Osee, secretary of the Forestry Society of Kenya, maintains that it opposed the moratorium back in 2018 and that the trees being harvested have no ecological value to the environment

“A regulated forest has a trinity of norms in terms of age distribution and acreages, a felling plan ensures the sustainable management of the forest and anything above the rotation age you get problems of heart rot and windfall,” he says.

Environmentalists, however, find the lifting of the ban as premature, and that KFS had not complied with all the recommendations of the Taskforce on Forest Resources Management and Logging, that singled out corruption at the KFS Management Board that has allowed for the destruction of indigenous forests overtime.

The Kenya Forest Working Group and the East African Wildlife Society calling for transparency in the on-going harvesting.

“We are deeply concerned that lifting the logging moratorium without considering the aforementioned recommendations and concerns could have detrimental effects on our indigenous forests,” read a statement by KFWG and EAWS.

The Environmental Institute of Kenya saying Kenya’s current forest cover of 8.8 per cent is still too little to warrant the cutting of trees and behind the scenes, the looting of indigenous trees is happening

“Nature is unforgiving and any interference with nature we will face the wrath, says Mr. Michael Babu a member of EIK

Still, inside the Maasai Mau, Bamboo, a timber alternative, has been taking root, rehabilitating areas that had been reclaimed by the government after a series of evictions of illegal settlers from 2016. This is programme is being run by Ewaso Ng’iro South Development Authority (ENSDA).

1,500 acres have been rehabilitated with the giant bamboo, the goal being a bamboo processing plant that will see communities benefit from the plant and safeguarding the environment.

“Bamboo is a sustainable plant that you can plant and harvest for 40 years, it serves as the best connection between trees and livelihoods, said Mr. Ngala Oloitiptip, ENDSA CEO.

ENSDA has been working with more than 2000 farmers in Nakuru and Narok counties for bamboo propagation for five years now, having 600 acres of bamboo cultivated as a crop.

 In Kisiriri, Mr. Patrick Kosen, one of the bamboo out-growers shows us his plantation, that he says has transformed the microclimate around his farm.

“Sometimes it rains just here in the bamboo plantation, I want to be among the first farmers who start benefitting from the bamboo processing plant when it comes,” said Mr. Kosen

For more than a century, Kenya’s indigenous forests have been under siege, and with a bulging population, the forest has had to give way to man.

Indigenous forests still occupy a bigger surface area compared with the plantation forest that have an annual harvesting capacity of 5000 hectares.

Kenya has an ambitious plan of growing the national tree cover to 30 per cent by planting 15 billion trees, by the year 2032 but, environmentalists are cautioning that the country might miss the mark if the destruction of indigenous forests continue in the guise of reviving the local timber industry.