Ruto calls for probe into the uprooting of baobabs in Kilifi

Uprooted Baobab tree

Uprooted Baobab tree is transported along the Mombasa-Malindi Highway in this photo taken on 20th November 2022.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

President William Ruto has ordered investigations into the uprooting of baobab trees in Kilifi and their exports to Georgia.

Dr Ruto’s orders come amid an uproar from environmentalists and leaders over alleged biopiracy by a company called Ariba Seaweed International.

“I have instructed the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to look into the uprooting of the Baobab trees in Kilifi County to ensure that it sits within the Convention on Biodiversity and the Nagoya Protocol,” he wrote on Twitter.

He said there must be adequate authorisation for such exports and an equitable benefit-sharing formula for Kenyans.

“The exercise must be in line with the Government’s agenda of planting 15 billion trees in the next ten years,” he added.

Environmentalists and leaders in Kilifi also condemned the decision by the environment watchdog Nema, Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service to allow the uprooting and exports of baobabs from Kilifi.

They urged the government to revoke the licences issued to Ariba Seaweed and a Georgian named George Gvasaliya to uproot and export the trees to Georgia, and prosecute government officers engaged in the alleged biopiracy deal.

Ganze MP Kenneth Kazungu said allowing foreigners to uproot and export the trees undermines Kenyan heritage as they are indigenous trees.

He said the act had an adverse environmental effect when the county is going through a severe drought and leaders are championing massive tree planting to fight climate change.

Mr Kazungu told the Nation he would table a petition in the National Assembly to get the government to revoke the licences issued to the company.

“The uprooting of the baobab must stop because it has a lot of adverse effects on our environment. You cannot uproot our indigenous trees that have existed for over 100 years … for export as we sit and watch,” he said.

He faulted Nema’s decision to license the company to operate for two years and said that would harm the community.

Mr Kazungu added that the Mijikenda community had a special attachment to the baobab tree spiritually and culturally, and allowing the uprooting and export of the trees dishonours them.

“The baobab trees are places of worship for the Mijikenda community. Let us not forgo our culture because of the quest for money,” he said.

The MP argued that the community was enlightened on the benefits of the tree and was benefiting from value addition for products derived from it, with many farmers depending on it for their livelihoods.

Most baobab farmers are in Kauma in Ganze constituency.

Nature Kenya Coast regional conservation programmes coordinator Francis Kagema claimed Nema had violated the Constitution.

“Nema has given uncountable approvals, which the environmental tribunals and the Land and Environment Court have reversed, a serious indictment. It tells us their approvals are substandard and often driven by consideration other than integrity and law,” he said.

Mr Kagema said the case Nema took to court was a smokescreen to confuse everyone.

“Both KFS and Nema have been compromised before,” he said.

“Shockingly, the county government approved the origin of the baobabs without identifying specific trees, which trees were approved and which ones were not, and who owns the ‘approved trees’. The entire process has all the hallmarks of corrupt dealings.”

Environmental crusader James Katunda said there was no justification for uprooting any tree.

“There is something that does not make sense. Trees form part of our heritage. It is wrong to uproot a full-grown baobab tree,” he said.

“The tree has many ecological values, and as we battle climate change, we need every tree.

“The foreigners could buy seeds from the Kenya Forest Research Institute or develop a business idea to buy the seeds and plant through leasing land and export after they are fully grown, but going for old baobab trees is catastrophic.”

Mr Katunda added that baobabs in Kilifi form part of Kenya’s history, saying the Mijikenda heroine Mekatilili wa Menza hid in one such tree at the River Sabaki.

“Now, for government agencies to allow people to sell baobab, they are indirectly opening a whole [Pandora’s box] of the destruction of the environment and history,” he said.

“Many people will willingly sell baobabs because of poverty to get money due to the biting poverty. We cannot allow money to be a bait that will lead us to the destruction of our existence.”