Millionaires who can’t log into their tree riches

A plantation of wattle trees at Joel Mudahana's 100-acre farm in Eldoret. [Kevin Tunoi, Standard]

When Joel Mudahana converted his 100-acre farm into wattle trees plantation, he thought he would make a breakthrough in life.

The resident of Uasin Gishu County planted wattle trees for extraction of barks for making dye and charcoal.

But three years down the line, Mr Mudahana is ruing the day he decided to plant the trees since he cannot harvest them.

“I have hundreds of acres under wattle trees but I can’t sell because the government has banned charcoal burning and yet wattle trees are purely for making charcoal besides dye,” lamented Mudahana.

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He said life was getting difficult by the day because wattle trees farming has been his economic livelihood for decades.

“In my farm there is a variety of trees especially on riparian areas which are never cut, but I feel the government is punishing me by not allowing me to harvest the wattle trees for charcoal burning,” he said.

No movement permits

When The Standard visited his farm, we found it entirely under wattle, blue gum, cypress and a variety of indigenous trees. Stacks of wattle trees were lying wasted after the barks were removed and taken for tanning into dye.

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“As you can see, I have never cut any other tree apart from mature wattle trees and I find the directive to ban tree harvesting punitive. I have never gone to the forest to burn charcoal but the trees are in my farm and I am appealing to the government to look into it,” he said.

Mudahana said it was surprising for the government through Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and chiefs to issue permits for felling of trees and even charcoal burning but not issue movement permits.

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“There is a lapse in the system. Environment Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko should have sought the input of all stakeholders before coming up with such a punitive directive,” he said.

Mudahana is not alone. Joan Cheboi is also agonising over the same.

“I have wattle trees in my farm, and last year I had more than 1,000 bags of charcoal but since there is no movement permit, it all went down the drain. I have never stepped into any government forest to burn charcoal but I harvest trees on my farm,” she stated.

Ms Cheboi said many people were suffering as a result of the directive and called for it to be relooked.

“I lease farms and plant wattle trees and in some cases I finance the venture through bank loans. But since we cannot transport charcoal we have defaulted on the loans and we fear our property will be carted away,” she said.

Ainabkoi, Kapseret and Turbo in Uasin Gishu County were formerly owned by the defunct East Africa Tanning Company before locals bought it. They have been planting the wattle trees for dye making as well as charcoal burning.

Another wattle tree farmer, Chris Muktain from Ainabkoi, said the government was contravening the Constitution by depriving locals charcoal movement permits.

“The right to own property is enshrined in the Constitution and if the government cannot allow locals to transport charcoal, we shall move to court soon. This is killing the local economy and driving many back to poverty,” he said.

Mr Muktain said charcoal business had become a conduit of corruption with law enforcers taking bribes from those transporting the product.

“We are doing a legitimate business and what we are asking for is only movement permits. If there is any doubt, government officers should visit our farms to certify which types of trees we plant for charcoal,” he said.

Muktain said charcoal from neighbouring countries had flooded the Kenyan market thereby killing the local enterprise.

“The imports are denying the country the much-needed revenue through permit fees and also many have been rendered jobless because they depended on the charcoal industry,” he said.

During Mashujaa Day celebrations, Elgeyo Marakwet County Commissioner Ahmed Omar warmed chiefs and their assistants as well as law enforcers against taking bribes from people transporting charcoal.

North Rift head of Conservancy Benjamin Kinyili said due to the ongoing moratorium on logging, there are no charcoal movement permits from private farms.

“The matter is being addressed at ministerial level and it is beyond my mandate,” said Mr Kinyili.

The farmers drawn from Uasin Gishu, Elgeyo Marakwet and Nandi counties accuse the government of punishing them for investing in tree farming.

Jacob Keter, a wattle tree farmer from Nandi, said they have been frustrated by the government despite the heavy investment they have put in tree farming.

“Just like any other legitimate business, we saw an opportunity in tree farming but it is a pity that we are unable to send our children to school or pay bills because the government has denied us movement permits.

“It beats logic that the government issues licenses for timber and not charcoal and we suspect timber business is for the ‘big people’ in government while charcoal is for the common man,” he said.

Two years

He regretted that for the last two years it has been difficult to transport charcoal on Kenyan roads even if one has a permit.

“Security officers demand bribes forcing us to abandon the trade because we have been forced to sell property to pay fines imposed after being arrested. We are engaged in genuine business,” he said.

Mr Keter said he had leased land to plant the trees but the mature ones are yet to be harvested yet the lease was about to expire.

Titus Kabuswa from Elgeyo Marakwet challenged KFS officers to visit individual farms to ascertain the origin of trees before giving out permits.

“Charcoal business contributes a lot along the value chain and these people have been rendered jobless. I used more than Sh200,000 to lease an acre for planting trees but now it has been wasted,” said Mr Kabuswa.

He said life was getting harder for them and the only ‘mistake’ they made was to plant trees.

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Uasin Gishu CountyKenya Forest ServiceElgeyo Marakwet