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As Kenya's forests - and rainfall - vanish, communities dig in to help

by Sophie Mbugua | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 27 May 2016 12:00 GMT

Raphael Muchembe, chairperson of the Othaya Zuti Community Forest Association in Kenya, looks after a replanted tree in the Zuti area of the Aberdare forest. TRF/Sophie Mbugua

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With deforestation threatening Kenya's water supplies, a push is underway to replant

By Sophie Mbugua

OTHAYA, Kenya, May 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kenya needs to take urgent action to combat degradation of key forests, for the sake of its environment and its economy, experts say.

The country’s forests, ranging from mountain rainforests to savannah woodlands, coastal forests and mangroves, are under pressure due to high demand for land and resources from the country’s growing population.

An estimated 50,000 hectares (200 square miles) of forest is cleared annually, with a consequent yearly loss to the economy of over $19 million, according to a 2014 report by the Ministry of Environment, Water and Natural Resources.

Ten percent of Kenya’s population live within 5 km (3 miles) of forests and rely on forest resources for their work and lives. The country’s constitution and the economic blueprint Vision 2030 call for boosting the amount of land covered by forest from the current level of 6.9 percent to at least 10 percent.

Clearance of mountain forests, known as “water towers” because of their role in capturing and regulating the flow of more than 75 percent of the country’s surface water, affects river flows and the supply of water to irrigation agriculture.

Wood from timber harvesting is used in construction and in other industries, including wood carving, with demand reaching almost 42 million cubic metres in 2012, said Jackson Bambo, national coordinator of the Kenya Forests Working Group, a coalition of government and non-governmental organisations working on forest issues. Wood also is used for heating and cooking.

But the loss of forests affects many other businesses in Kenya, particularly those that rely on power from hydroelectric dams. Even taking into account the income from sales of timber and fuel wood, the United Nations Environment Programme estimated that deforestation deprived Kenya’s economy of $68 million in 2012.

“Kaptagat Forest, a water tower in the Mau complex in the Rift Valley, and Kakamega Forest, the only tropical rainforest in Kenya, are among the most affected,” Bambo said.


Infrastructure development, mining, agriculture, charcoal burning and poor governance are driving deforestation, says Aisha Karanja, executive director of the Green Belt Movement, a non-governmental organisation founded by Wangari Maathai, who won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to protect Kenya’s forests.

“Despite there being good laws (against deforestation), weak institutions and weak law enforcement in the country, corruption that aids illegal logging, overreliance on charcoal for energy and unsustainable charcoal production are constraining the forests in Kenya,” Karanja said in an interview.

James Kairo, a principal scientist at the Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, said that salt mining in the coastal town of Kwale has resulted in extensive clearance of mangrove forests and of land previously used for tree crops such as coconut and cashew nut.

“More than 500 hectares of mangroves have been felled to create room for the construction of salt ponds. It has affected a variety of terrestrial and aquatic animals such as shrimps, crabs and oysters, many of which are of economic importance to the coastal communities,” Kairo said.

Deforestation has led to reduced rainfall and increased temperatures in the area, he added.

Karanja said that the country’s rapidly growing population, currently estimated at around 46 million, is amplifying pressure on forests as land is sought for settlement, farming and grazing.

“Forest lands are the most fertile and therefore natural targets for agricultural expansion,” she said.

By 2010, when the Green Belt Movement began working on conservation of the Upper Tana river watersheds around Mt. Kenya and the Aberdare forests, about 70 percent of the watersheds were highly degraded, Karanja said.

Raphael Muchembe, chairperson of the Othaya Zuti Community Forest Association, has worked with the Green Belt Movement for the last five years. He blames high population and land fragmentation in the 1990s – the result of population growth - for forcing communities around the Aberdare Mountains to invade the forest.

“People cleared the savannah area and mature trees for farming,” Muchembe said. “They cut trees at high rates which they sold for firewood and charcoal. People harvested wood for sale at the saw mills and grazed at the forests.”

Muchembe and over 1,100 members of the forest association have replanted more than 100,000 hectares on the Aberdare Mountains and aim to restore the majority of areas denuded of forest there.


Fred Kihara, director of the Water Fund at the Nature Conservancy in Africa, which works to conserve the Upper Tana river basin, said that reforestation and tree protection are already under way with the involvement of communities living near the forests.

Kihara says his programme has worked with farmers to replant 15,000 hectares in the Upper Tana region, which covers Mt Kenya and the Aberdare Mountains. The program aims to plant 40,000 hectares by 2020.

The Tana is Kenya’s longest river, stretching almost 1,000 km (around 600 miles) from the edge of the Great Rift Valley to the fertile delta where it meets the Indian Ocean. The upper river basin includes the Aberdare Mountains and Mt Kenya, which are the major “water towers” in Kenya, and are surrounded for the most part by intensive, small-scale agriculture.

The Water Fund has organised downstream users of water, who depend on reliable supplies, to support reforestation upstream, Kihara said. The businesses, such as the Coca Cola Africa Foundation, the Kenya Electricity Generating Company, East Africa Breweries Limited and the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company, have contributed to an endowment fund that has already reached $10 million.

The money pays for the planting of high-quality saplings upstream, and Napier grass that farmers can grow on terraced land for their cattle to eat instead of allowing the animals to eat tree leaves.

Under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, Kenya has pledged to cut its carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030 by increasing its tree cover.

(Reporting by Sophie Mbugua; editing by James Baer and Laurie Goering; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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