Opinion: Forest dependent people key in conservation

The campaign comes in the wake of reports that emphasise the importance of locally driven forest conservation efforts.
Last week, the Environment Ministry’s spirited #PandaMitiPendaKenya campaign rallied Kenyans to plant over a billion trees and restore Kenya’s depleted forest cover.

The campaign comes in the wake of reports that emphasise the importance of locally driven forest conservation efforts.

Forests are at the heart of our economy and future survival. The recently completed Taskforce Report on Forest Management and Logging estimates our forests contribute Sh7 billion per annum and employs 50,000 and 300,000 people directly and indirectly, respectively. Trees and especially the cedar tree is big business for some.

We lose 5,000 hectares of tree cover or if you like, 5,000 rugby pitches each year, to commercial logging, illegal encroachment and infrastructure.

SEE ALSO :Government bans grazing on reclaimed Mau forest land

Ten counties namely Narok, Nakuru, Kilifi, Lamu, Kwale, Elgeyo-Marakwet, Kericho, Nandi, Uasin Gishu and Baringo are responsible for the greatest losses. Forests hold water towers and are directly responsible for all the water available for human consumption and our entire eco-system.

We lose 62 million cubic litres of water each year due to deforestation. Left unchecked, Kenya will join Egypt and other water stressed North African countries in under ten years.

The Taskforce also found the very agency assigned the duty of protecting our forest culpable of involvement in corruption and logging. In a rare and decisive action, Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko braved the cartels, disbanded the Kenya Forestry Services Board (KFS), sent senior officers packing for abuse of office and implemented a 90 day ban on commercial logging.

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Contestation over the exploitation and conservation of our forests stems back to colonialism. The main problem has been the rights of indigenous peoples and forest-dwelling communities like the Sengwer and the Ogiek of the Embobut and Mau forests.

 Together with other communities, they have lived, worshipped, harvested and restored our forests for a century. Indigenous people are recognised in our Constitution and international rights standards. Denying these communities access to their subsistence economy threatens to extinguish their very identity. 

SEE ALSO :Forester digs in against dam plan

Having dominated the January headlines, the evictions of the Sengwer were revisited this week in a new Amnesty International report that documents the use of excessive force and violence by the KFS.

Since January 2014, KFS rangers burnt down 2,531 forest-based dwellings in 76 incidents, killed one person, injured scores and made thousands homeless.

Suffering, destitution, cutting down of more trees to build new homes and disruption of traditional practices of community-based forest management has been the impact.

To add pain to injury, attempts by Sengwer to denounce illegal logging by companies and KFS collusion in 2015 were ignored. It is absurd to expect this community, after all that has happened to them, to have a consistent strategy and investment towards conserving the forest.

Correcting injustices against the Sengwer must include prosecution of State officers who abused their office and used excessive force to evict families.

SEE ALSO :Automatic elephant gates closing in on human-wildlife conflict

 In the light of the Forestry Management Taskforce, Amnesty International Kenya and the soon-to-be completed Kenya National Human Rights Commission reports, Elgeyo Marakwet Governor Tolgos must urgently convene an inclusive dialogue of national and county actors.

Community forest management and ownership is globally recognised as the most sustainable model for forest conservation.

Asking 47 million Kenyans to plant 1.5 billion trees and not hold the very same communities accountable for their nurturing and protection doesn’t make sense. The forest-dependent and indigenous peoples of Kenya are easy allies for the State.

Instead of evictions, the State must move to create partnerships with them for our forests. The rest of us must continue to plant trees while there is still rainfall. This is the only way to move Kenya from #Grey2Green.

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ForestconservationEnvironment Ministry