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How baobabs were trafficked from the Coast

A Baobab tree in Mavueni, Kilifi County. [Kelvin Karani, Standard]

Three seemingly unrelated events occurred this year between May and November, laying the groundwork for what could have been the biggest rip-off of Kenya’s biodiversity at the Coast.

Applications from peasant farmers in small villages in Kilifi county seeking permission to uproot baobabs strangely increased to eight as election campaigns reached fever pitch ahead of the August 9 polls.

Kilifi County’s Environment Department officials said the applications received between May and August 2022 were four times higher than those received between 2017 and 2022.

Copies of the 2022 applications show that they all came from farmers in the Kilifi North constituency’s Tezo and Mtondia villages. They were accepted the same day they were submitted.

Philip Gandi of Tezo, for example, applied on May 13 and received approval the same day. Hamis Katana of Mtondia applied on July 4 and was approved, as was Ronald Ngala of Tezo village, who filled out and submitted his forms on May 23.

Permission to uproot

All of the farmers claimed they wanted to uproot the trees in order to cultivate.

“We were alarmed by the number of farmers who came into our offices seeking permission to uproot the giant and productive Baobab trees,” said a senior county officer who requested anonymity due to an ongoing internal investigation into the matter.

All 47 county governments signed a Transition Implementation Plan (TIP) framework with the Kenya Forest Services (KFS) in 2016, which devolved most forestry functions.

Baobab tree packed for export at Bofa Jetty in Kilifi County. The big baobab trees are sold for Sh300,000 to Sh500,000. November 25, 2022. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

The Forest Conservation and Management (Amendment) Act of 2016 gave counties the authority to regulate tree-cutting on private farms and government forests.

To put the law into action and protect the forest cover in Kilifi, the county instituted a stringent process that any farmer seeking a permit to cut down a tree must follow.

To prove ownership, a farmer must fill out a form. The form is then presented to the area sub-chief for approval of the farmer’s information. If the tree bears edible fruits, an agriculture officer must certify that it is no longer productive. Copies of the forms demonstrate that the agricultural officer never consented.

Mr Omar Said Omar, a member of the Kilifi County Executive Committee (CEC), is expected to issue a comprehensive statement on the matter.

Quick business

As the farmers walked out of the Kilifi county offices, they met agents of a Kilifi-based Georgian national who bought the trees at a cost of between Sh110,000 and Sh380,000. 

“He also compensated for the small trees damaged in the process of uprooting the Baobab,” said Davis Kahindi, one of the farmers who sold the tree to George Gvasaliya, the Georgian.

While the farmers flocked to the county offices to obtain permits to uproot the trees in the guise of cultivating the land, a second event was taking place on the nearby Bofa beachfront.

All of the farmers claimed they wanted to uproot the trees in order to cultivate. [Kelvin Karaja, Standard]

Gvasaliya leased a beach plot for three months on June 26 and converted it into a jetty to load the eight baobab trees into a cargo vessel.

On April 13, the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (Kephis) granted him permission to export the tree to Georgia. 

The eight baobabs weighed 500,000kgs and were to be loaded onto the Hammonia America, a cargo ship sailing under the Liberian flag, and transported to Tbilisi.

We discovered four massive baobab trees ready for loading onto the police-protected vessel at the jetty. Attempts to contact Gvasaliya were futile because he did not return phone calls. “When we stopped issuing permits to farmers, Gvasaliya showed up with permits from other agencies allowing him to export the eight,” said a county officer with knowledge of the investigation.

Kenya Forestry Services (KFS) granted Gvasaliya an export permit on November 1, saying it had no objections to the transaction because the baobab is not listed as an endangered tree on the IUCN Red List.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List is a global inventory of the conservation status of more than 100,000 biological species on the verge of extinction.

According to the permit, the baobab is not a protected tree species in Kenya, and it is also not listed on any of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) appendices. Cites is an international agreement between governments that regulate or ban international trade in species under threat.

The licence issued by KFS chief conservator of forest, Julius Kamau, on November 1 stated: “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.

“Nema has issued an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report.”  But the National Environment Management Authority has since suspended the licence it issued to Gvasaliya, saying the EIA reports submitted to it were not comprehensive.

It faulted Gvasaliya for uprooting the trees before a comprehensive EIA was conducted.

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

Multiple interviews and documents show that, aside from payments for permits and farmers, Kenya would have reaped no benefits from the deal now or in the future.

Pwani University Don Dr Joseph Tunje said State officers who approved the deal failed to ensure the deal guaranteed Kenya future benefits accrued for the trees.

“As custodians of the country’s biodiversity, they failed to ensure the Nagoya protocol is followed in the deal. They handled the whole issue haphazardly,” he said.

Educating farmers

Dr Tunje who was involved in the World Living Resources campaign to educate farmers on the benefits of baobab trees, said most residents want to uproot baobab trees from their farms.

He said the deal approved by KFS, Nema, Kephis and the Kilifi county government elicited global ridicule in Kenya, owing to its commitment to increase the forest cover by 10 per cent.

Documents show that Kilifi county officers, KFS, Nema, and Kephis also issued the permits within a month or two months of Gvasaliya’s application, casting doubt on the process.

“The protected baobab trees are those found within the Kaya Forest, but we still have the responsibility as a nation to guard against the destruction of our forest cover,” Tunje said.

On November 22, KFS became the final agency to revoke Gvasaliya’s licence, citing concerns raised by the Environment CS.

“The services hereby notify you that permit number PER.01/2022 for the export of eight baobab trees to Georgia, dated November 1, is hereby revoked,” wrote Julius Kamau of KFS.

CS Soipan Tuya, on November 21 said the deal violated the international Convention on Biodiversity as well as the Nagoya Protocol, to which Kenya is a signatory. The CS said plant variety protection is a form of intellectual property, and that the process of uprooting baobab trees needed adequate authorisation and a clear benefit-sharing formula, which she said were not obtained regularly.