Protest, relief as ship with baobab trees sails

A trailer transports baobab trees along the Malindi-Mombasa highway. [Nehemiah Okwembah, Standard]

A ship carrying gigantic live baobab trees has sailed from the Kenyan Coast to Georgia, ending a nine-month standoff between a Kilifi-based billionaire and State agencies that had suspended the export permit.

But as the ship with ten baobab trees sailed away, it left behind questions on the findings of the probe by several State security agencies and parliamentary watchdogs on how Mr George Gvasaliya got the permit.

Meanwhile, environmental activists on Saturday insisted that the export was a form of bio-piracy and a mockery of President William Ruto's campaign to plant five billion trees.

"We know that Georgia is a subtropical country and prone to frost, and is not a suitable climate for baobab,” said Genesis for Human Rights Commission Programme Officer, Mr Caleb Ngwena.

Since the debate on the deal to export live baobab to Georgia started last November, scenes of regret prevail among the farmers in Tezo and Majaoni in Kilifi South constituency.

Farmers like Macdonald Munga, who sold the tree to Kilifi-based tycoon Gvasaliya at between Sh100,000 and Sh300,000, feel cheated by the deal.

“The Kenya Forest Service failed to enlighten us about the tree hence we saw money. We sold before interrogating the benefits the buyer will accrue over the years,” he said.

Farmers in Kilifi have over the years complained about the tree, describing it as a nuisance. They say the trees do not support inter-cropping because of their huge branches and leaves.

James Kahindi, like other landowners, says he is unable to get customers to buy his ten-acre land due to several baobabs dotting it.

In a recent interview, Kahindi from Majajani village along the Mavueni-Kaloleni road, said his land was not appreciating in value because of the many baobab trees on it.

“Land prices are surging in the area. A quarter of an acre goes for Sh2.5 million. But investors have shied away from my land due to the cost of uprooting these trees,” said Kahindi.

“I needed that money to support my family because all our savings were wiped out during the Covid-19 period. I never imagined that the rates could have been even higher,” he added in regret.

The baobab has a spongy trunk meaning it cannot be used as timber or to make charcoal, which is another major economic activity in most parts of Kilifi County.

Police escort a trucks ferrying baobab trees along the Malindi- Mombasa highway. [Nehemiah Okwembah, Standard]

David Munga, who also sold a tree said he had for years agonised over how to deal with the giant baobab trees that dot his land in Tezo.

It is estimated that it costs at least Sh50,000 to dig up a mature baobab tree. On Munga’s farm, there are eight gigantic baobab trees.

“It would cost me Sh400,000 to uproot the eight giant baobab trees on my farm,” says Munga, adding that most farmers do not think much of the trees.

In 2020, Munga approached the Kilifi county government seeking permission to uproot the trees and create a playing field for pupils of his St Aminia Academy school. Munga says he has no regrets as Mr Gvasaliya bought his baobab, levelled the school playing field and even built classrooms free of charge.

On April 13 last year, the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) issued an export permit to Mr Gvasaliya to export the tree to Georgia. The permit was signed by Mr Ivan Obare.

It shows that the eight baobabs weighed 500,000kgs, and were to be loaded onto Hammonia America, a cargo vessel sailing under the flag of Liberia, and transported to Tbilisi, Georgia.

On November 1, 2022, the Kenya Forest Services (KFS) gave Mr Gvasaliya an export permit, saying it had no objection to the deal as Baobab was not an endangered tree per the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, nor on any Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) appendices.

“Kilifi county has issued a certificate of origin and permit to harvest; farmers and the proponent have indicated a willingness to trade; Kephis has issued phytosanitary certificate, and NEMA has issued an Environmental Impact Assessment report,” stated the license issued by the KFS Chief Conservator of Forest.

Documents show that the baobabs were to be exported and planted at a dendrological park in western Georgia, created by former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili in 2020.

But the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) has since suspended the license it issued to Mr Gvasaliya claiming the EIA reports submitted to it, and upon the basis it issued the permit, were not comprehensive. In a letter, it faults Mr Gvasaliya for commencing uprooting of the trees before a comprehensive EIA was conducted.

Baobab tree awaiting export at a jetty at Bofa Beach in Kilifi County, December 2022. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

“You commenced uprooting and export of baobab trees without acquiring an Access Permit amounting to a breach of the EIA licensee condition and the requirement of regulations 9,” read the letter from Nema dated November 3.

This is after Environment CS Ms Soipan Tuya said the deal violated the International Convention on Biodiversity as well as the Nagoya Protocol of which Kenya is a signatory.

The deal to export the live trees to Shekvetili Dendrological Park Limited in Ureki, Ozurgeti in Georgia, the eastern end of the Black Sea also attracted the attention of Parliament.

A parliamentary committee visited Kilifi south and grilled top government officials in sessions held at the Kilifi County Assembly chambers.

During the sittings, it emerged that baobab trees were not a protected tree species in Kenya, and were not listed on Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) appendices.

Kilifi North MP Owen Baya, in whose constituency Tezo falls, has also supported the farmers’ decision to sell the tree saying residents did not break any law in selling the trees.

This week, Kilifi south was a beehive of activity as two trucks with trailers transported the trees along the Malindi-Mombasa highway to a jetty at Bofa Beach where they were loaded onto the ship.

And on Saturday, KFS said Gvasaliya got permission to export the gigantic trees after meeting all the equipment spelled out in international treaties.

“KFS cleared the transportation after the client met all the legal and Nagoya Protocol requirements,” Ms Anne Kaari, KFS communication officer in a brief reply to our inquiry.