Bill on forest boundary change reeks of mischief and dishonesty

A section of Loita Forest, Narok. November 2021. [Boniface Okendo]

Kenya is a nature-based economy and forests contribute immensely to our economic development and livelihoods.

The forests support diverse economic sectors, including agriculture, horticulture, tourism, wildlife and energy. Our forest cover, which is seven per cent, is still below the global minimum of 10 per cent.

It is disturbing that the National Assembly that should safeguard this important resource by strengthening policies and setting aside budgets that would restore, sustain and increase our forest cover, would be mulling over a bill that takes away the powers of the Kenya Forest Service on the issue of boundary changes - the service mandated to provide recommendations to Parliament, and open this up to abuse as happened in past years.

The proposed amendment allowing anyone to petition for a boundary change to the clerk of the National Assembly reeks of mischief and dishonesty. We seem to be speaking from both sides of our mouths.

On one hand, Kenya in its constitutional provisions, Article 69 (1) (b) emphasises the need to “work to achieve and maintain a tree cover of at least 10 per cent of the land area of Kenya”.

Kenya has also been on the frontline to commit to 5.1 million hectare land restoration under the AFR 100 - AFR100 (the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative) a country-led effort to bring 100 million hectares of land in Africa into restoration by 2030.

Our commitment as a country is also spelt out in the Vision 2030, the National Climate Change Response Strategy and the Nationally Determined Contributions reviewed in December 2020. In addition, the government developed the 10 per cent National Tree Cover Strategy which is aligned to the National Forest Programme - a cross-sectoral framework.

Some key highlights of the strategy include broad institutional and multi-stakeholder participation in accelerating the achievement of the Constitutional target of 10 per cent tree cover of the national land area as provided for under Article 69 (1) (b). Implementation of presidential directives that the constitutional target of 10 per cent national tree cover should be achieved by 2022, is a further commitment on the urgency for restoration.

In the Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, world nations agreed to protect, conserve and increase tropical forests in order to reduce climate change. This was preceded by President Uhuru Kenyatta’s commitment during the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September 2020 where he endorsed the Leader’s Pledge for Nature.

“We need and we must reset our relationship with nature and secure a resilient carbon-neutral, nature-positive world; and therefore ensure the green recovery agenda is on top of our priorities….as a sign of our steadfast commitment to halt and reverse biodiversity loss and put nature and our ecosystems, on a path to its recovery by 2030,” he said.

Surveys have shown that about 12 per cent of the land area which was originally covered by closed-canopy forests has been reduced to about 1.7 per cent since independence. It is estimated that Kenya’s current situation may lead to an annual reduction in water availability of approximately 62 million cubic metres. This is unfortunate, happening in an already water-scarce country. 

The forested water towers and other catchment areas that supply water to rivers and lakes – represent over 75 per cent of the country’s renewable surface water resources – besides providing more than 15.8 billion cubic metres of water per year.

Any affront to this means blatant disrespect to the citizens. Unfortunately, scientists are yet to get a substitute for water, and therefore the little finite resource available and its catchments should be safeguarded jealously. Besides, forests and forest landscapes are further credited with strengthening habitat and community resilience to climate change by providing important environmental goods and services as well as refuge for wildlife.

With this knowledge, why would our Parliament want to alter the mandate of the KFS? Is it to make it easier for excision? Is it to increase the rate of restoration? Drawing from the “The Taskforce Report on Forest Resource Management and Logging Activities in Kenya 2018 (pages 36-41)”  human settlements and encroachment were cited as some of the biggest threats to biodiversity loss in Kenya.

The passage of the amendment bill would open room for de-gazettement and invasion of protected forests, therefore, disregarding Kenya’s national and global commitments on landscape restoration and climate change mitigation.

According to the Forest Conservation and Management Act 2016, a forest boundary can only be amended based on stakeholder consultations, environmental impact assessment reports and recommendations to parliament by the Kenya Forest Service. “A petition under subsection (1) shall only be forwarded to the National Assembly on the recommendation of the Service (Kenya Forest Service)”

The proposed amendment seeks to take away the powers of KFS and allows anyone to petition for a boundary change to the Clerk of the National Assembly. Can we entrust the protection of the remaining forests to MPs alone? Historically, have they been able to protect forest land? Does this strengthen or weaken governance and protection of public forest land?

It is imperative that Parliament takes deliberate measures and enacts laws aimed at protecting and conserving the environment and strengthening governance and further pursue perpetrators of environmental destruction, past and present, and bring them to justice.

The National Assembly should also call for an audit of forest land acreage and their state with a view to enhancing rehabilitation, restoration and protection as we embark on the UN decade of Ecosystem Restoration.

The Constitution states that all sovereign power belongs to the people. Kenyans should be very wary and object to the proposed amendment to the Forest Conservation and Management Act contained in this amendment Bill 2021.