Kenya has a vista of natural as well as planted forests in different parts of the country. A trip across the country, from Mombasa at the coast to Busia in the west, exposes one to a landscape of acacia-strewn woodland, exotic tree plantations, small-farm woodlands and thousands of acres of indigenous forests. Kenya’s forests provide communities with food, wood-fuel, housing materials, medicinal herbs and cultural sites. Forests also serve as a storehouse of biodiversity as they are a habitat for upwards of 60 per cent of the country’s indigenous plant, animal, bird and reptile species. The forests are home to Kenya’s 1,100 bird species.
Other ecological services that forests provide are water purification, groundwater recharge, soil erosion and siltation control, and flood mitigation. Forests also play a vital role in microclimate management by influencing the production of rainfall, halting the spread of deserts and sequestering carbon, effectively mitigating climate change. Three per cent of the country is under forest cover, a figure authorities seek to raise to 10 percent by the year 2030. Kenya’s forest and woodland assets comprise 1.64 million hectares of closed canopy, 610,000ha of plantation (predominantly in the central and Rift Valley highlands as well as the coastal region), 851,000ha of rain forest (largely in western Kenya) and 211,000ha of dry zone forests.
In 2011, the Government, through the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), intensified rehabilitation and conservation of the country’s natural forests. The main achievement was the restoration of the degraded forests and continued tree planting campaigns in gazetted forests and individual farms. The total forest plantation stocking increased by 2.4 per cent from 118,800 hectares in 2010 to 121,700 hectares in 2011. Eight thousand hectares were planted with trees compared to 9,600 hectares in 2010. The decrease in area planted was attributed to the slowing down of the Kazi Kwa Vijana (KKV) programme. About 4,000 hectares were cleared of trees in 2011 compared to 2,800 hectares in 2010 as a result of a decision by KFS to remove written-off trees due to damage by fires and windfalls, which consumed 1,200 hectares. Sale of timber increased by 2.0 per cent from 420,500 true cubic metres in 2010 to 428,700 true cubic metres in 2011, mainly because increased demand for softwoods, which rose from 401,200 true cubic metres in 2010 to 419,200 true cubic metres in 2011.
There was a notable decline in the sale of fuel-wood/charcoal from the Government forests, attributed to the reduced sale of power and telegraphic poles. Competition from private farmers, and the importation and use of concrete poles by Kenya Power contributed to the decline. Through laws, policies and institutions, the Government has pledged to ensure these forests are protected. At the centre of these efforts is the Ministry of Forests and Wildlife. The Kenya Forests Service (KFS), which has a paramilitary wing of forest guards to secure protected areas, and the Kenya Wildlife Service, which also has an armed unit, takes care of forests in national parks. The KFS and a host of other institutions (such as the Kenya Forestry College) operate under the Forest Act 2005 which recognises the crucial role played by forests.
This law seeks the “establishment, development and sustainable management, including conservation and rational utilisation of forest resources for the socio-economic development of the country”. However, destruction of forests has continued. Although a Master Plan prepared in 1991-1994 provides a framework for the development of the sector for a period of 25 years, it has not been effective. Virtually all forests countrywide face threat from illegal settlers and pollution. Recent attempts to stop further destruction have faced resistance. A decision by the Government to ban logging in 1999 was met with controversy. Loggers claim the country is losing billings of shillings due to the ban. The Mau Forests Complex has particularly caused sharp divisions between environmental campaigners and politicians. Various committees have been formed to address the Mau issue, including seeking ways of compensating those likely to be evicted and how best to restore the forest in places destroyed by human encroachment.
Kenya’s key water towers are: Cherangani, Mt Kenya, Aberdares, Elgon and Mau Complex. There are 10 other small towers countrywide. Virtually all rivers rise from these towers. Apart from providing environmental services essential to livelihoods, these catchment areas are habitats for key products, such as medicinal plants, firewood and pasture. A section of Kenya’s population lives near the main water towers. Yet, as population grows, so is the appetite to misappropriate these key resources. The pressure on these critical natural assets becomes immense. They have become the target of the landless, the property prospector, and the corrupt. Thousands of hectares of the Mau have been cleared for human settlement, causing concern locally and internationally. Charcoal burners have also turned these key catchment areas into kilns.
The Government seeks to protect these forests. It also endeavours to increase the forest cover by a point to four per cent in 2012, to ultimately raise the figure to ten per cent by 2030 – when Kenya expects to become a middle-income economy, based on Vision 2030. The standard global average forest cover is ten per cent. To help restore, conserve and ensure sustainable management of the water towers, the Government plans to rehabilitate them under a new programme, the Water Catchment Management Initiative. The Government has consequently taken a number of actions. First, it removed illegal squatters in Mau and started the process of identifying alternative land for them. It also repossessed 1,200 hectares of land hitherto settled by squatters, adding to the 7,000ha already replanted in the area. Second, the Minister for Finance gazetted regulations to establish the Water Towers Conservation Fundto be managed by a National Water Towers Management Committee.
Third, the Government announced a plan to establish the Kenya Water Towers Agency to oversee the conservation of the ecosystem in the main water catchment areas. Private initiatives to assist the Government stop the destruction of water towers have been started. The Rhino Ark Management Committee plans to conserve the Aberdares, Mt Kenya and Eburru, including erecting a 2,000-square-kilometre fence round Mt Kenya.
At independence, Kenya’s forest cover was 12 per cent. It has since dwindled to less than three per cent due to the activities of loggers and illegal settlers. The Government ban on logging has been in force since 1999. Only four saw millers are allowed to mine forests. But some non-governmental organisations have argued that the ban has done little to curb illegal logging. The Government promised to lift the ban two years ago.
Kenya Forest Research Institute (Kefri) is at the centre of Kenya’s efforts to have ten per cent of its land under forests by the year 2030. This parastatal is involved in research aimed at producing quality tree varieties under the Kenya Seed Programme. It is also involved in studies of threatened tree species, including the Sandalwood (Osyris lanceolata). The Government recognises that Kenya’s efforts to afforest 10 per cent of the country would not be easy without the benefit of research, with 80 per cent of the country either desert or semi-arid. Kefri was awarded ISO Environment Management System (EMS) certification in September 2011.