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Alarm as Kenya adds least State forest acreage in 23 years

A cleared section at Kiptunga Forest in the Mau Forest complex. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Kenya last year put the least number of land hectares under State forest in 23 years, shining the spotlight on billions of shillings being sunk into afforestation programmes.

Data from Kenya Forest Service shows the country last year added 2,400 hectares to the State forest cover, this being the least in a single year since 1998 when 200 acres were added.

Last year’s performance also marked the fourth straight year of the reduced pace of afforestation since the peak of 11,000 hectares in 2017.

Kenya in 2018 added 9,200 hectares to its state forest cover but this dropped to 7,200 hectares in 2019 before closing 2020 with an additional 4,300 hectares.

The slowed pace in adding forest cover under State is despite the increased afforestation efforts that have consumed billions of shillings even as the State implemented drastic measures such as putting a ban on logging.

In the 2022/23 budget, Sh10.2 billion was allocated for forests and water tower conservation while Sh3.1 billion went to environment management and protection programmes.

The felling of trees, seedlings failure and destruction by fire have all conspired to slow Kenya’s quest to achieve a 10 percent forest cover by 2030.

Kenya in 2020, for instance, added 4,300 hectares to its forest cover to take the total area to 151,900 hectares. However, 2,300 hectares were lost due to plantation failure and fires.

Population pressure has reduced land sizes and heightened the temptation to encroach on forests, adding another headache to forest officials.

Recent remarks by deputy president Rigathi Gachagua on farming in forests, which he has since said were taken out of the context, have elicited mixed reactions over Kenya’s quest to increase its forest cover.

“In the forest, there was a shamba system, where people were allowed to grow maize, nurture the trees and when grown they would leave. This government is yours, we have issued an order for people to be allowed to farm inside the forest,” DP Gachagua said.

Over 3.1 million Kenyans are estimated to be in dire need of food aid. Climate change has been partly blamed for Kenya's erratic rain patterns.

In 2005, the government reintroduced the Plantation Establishment for Livelihood Improvement Scheme (PELIS) to help increase forest cover and restore degraded forests in the country.

In exchange, forest adjacent communities (FAC) are allocated plots in which they plant seedlings, and take care of them until the area forms a closed canopy while they practice agriculture in the same forests.

However, the pace of increase in Kenya’s land under forest cover has slowed to levels last seen in 1998, raising questions on the effectiveness of the system.

The capacity of the Kenya Forest Service to ensure PELIS is strictly enforced without gaps that allow people to encroach on forests and destroy indigenous trees has been put into question.

Kenya had set a target of 10 percent forest cover by the year 2030. Official data shows the country’s forest cover stagnated at 7.14 percent in 2019 and 2020 and hit 8.83 percent last year as total forests are closed at 5.22 million hectares.

A directive by the retired President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2018 saw the country embark on a rigorous tree planting exercise.

National Forest Resources Assessment Report 2021 places the country’s tree cover at 12.13 percent against the 30 percent that is targeted by 2050.