How baobabs were trafficked from the Coast

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.

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.