The floods in several parts of the country can partly be blamed on the destruction of a large part of the forest cover that would have absorbed and reduced the volume and speed of the run-off water.
Kenya has the lowest forest cover in the region and often depends on imported forest products from her neighbours to meet domestic demand. Increasing forest cover from the current 7 per cent to the internationally recommended 10 per cent is important if the country is to benefit from diverse services and move towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goal on environmental sustainability.
A nationwide tree planting exercise officiated by the President kicked off on May 12, 2018, with the theme ‘Panda miti, penda Kenya’. The initiative is meant to take advantage of the ongoing rains and comes against the backdrop of the report by the task force on illegal activities in the forest sector.
Although the findings of the task force are not new, wanton destruction of forests signals challenges in the implementation of the reforms started in 2005 and gaps in the enactment of the forestconservation and management Act of 2016. Weaknesses exist in the framework for participatory forest management upon which the reforms were anchored and which remain a key pillar in conservation. This means defining the rules for access and user rights of communities neighboring forests to ensure that they have a say in the conservation of the resources.
In Nepal and India, communities partner with forest departments and exercise authority over the use and management of forest resources. Thus, the rules on the establishment of the forestmanagement agreements signed between the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and associations can be modified and simplified in adherence to the principle of free prior and informed consent by the local community. This will not only take care of the disparities in the capacities of the forest service and the associations, but also reduce cases where communities are duped into signing agreements without full knowledge of their obligations.
Recruitment of local scouts to complement KFS guards protecting forests would serve to enhance self-regulation in the use and conservation of resources. Locals have stronger attachment to forestsand will be in a better position to identify people engaged in illicit activities. However, a coordination mechanism with adequate legal backing is required to ensure the mandates of the two are clearly spelt out for effective collaboration. For example, currently, forest scouts lack legal capacity to prosecute offenders before a court of law. There is also friction between forest guards and scouts, and the issue needs to be addressed.
Streamlining the procedures for licensing of sawmillers will be an important area of intervention. Currently, sawmillers obtain permits from KFS to allow them to undertake logging in the plantations and natural forests. They are charged a maximum of Sh12,752 per cubic metre and Sh14,469 per cubic metre to harvest trees in plantation and natural forest respectively. The current rates are low compared to the cost of establishing a forest.
Besides, lack of compliance with the conditions attached to the permit on identification of trees for harvest means that the trees are cut arbitrarily, leaving a stock that cannot regenerate. Current procedures on timber harvesting exclude community forest associations from being licensed as sawmillers, meaning that they cannot benefit from the most important forest product, timber.
The role of county governments is crucial in strengthening forest extension to ensure higher survival rate for seedlings and continued reseeding of forest plantations through the involvement of communities and other stakeholders. Rationalisation of transition implementation plans to facilitate the transfer of forest function to counties is crucial in this respect.
To further boost forest conservation, incentive schemes such as payment for environmental services should be promoted to enable communities generating a certain forest service, for example water, to be compensated by those benefiting from the use of that service. Such schemes have been successfully piloted in River Malewa, Naivasha and Sasumua Dam and should be scaled up.
More importantly, the future of the multi-billion shilling charcoal industry should be integral to the forest recovery strategy. Although the Forest Act 2016 legalised sustainable charcoal production and trade, lack of supportive regulation has hindered streamlining of the industry. As a result, some county governments have erected road blocks to stop the movement of charcoal outside their counties. To this end, the contribution of the Ministry of Energy’s subsidised gas cylinders programme should serve to further protect our forests by providing targeted families with cheap sources of energy for domestic use.
Building synergy among institutions will go a long way in securing the country’s forests. The focus should be on strengthening the coordination among the various actors charged with responsibility of protecting and regulating forest and water resources such as the Kenya Forest Service, the Kenya Wildlife Service, the Water Resource Management Authority, Kenya Water Towers Agency, and the Nyayo Tea Zones Development Corporation.