We can reap big from forests we sow without cutting down

Canada is the leading timber exporter in the world. But with a forest cover that spreads across 362 million hectares, Canada also ranks as the host of the third-largest forest area in the world. It can therefore afford to export timber without depleting its tree cover.

This trend also continues with other top timber exporters. Finland, which ranks as the sixth largest timber exporter in the world, has a 74% forest cover. Sweden, the fourth leading timber exporter has a forest cover of almost 70 per cent.

Clearly, you can't export what you don't have. That's what Kenya needs to remember. With a forest cover of 12 per cent we cannot afford to export timber, or even engage in logging.

I understand full well that logging can be a very lucrative business that is worth billions of dollars. The US, which is the third largest timber exporter globally, exported timber worth $21.7 billion in 2021. But they didn't do so by cutting down trees in public forests. US companies like Weyerhaeuser Company, one of the largest wood product manufacturers, own their forests.

This is the level of responsibility that must be demanded of anybody in the timber business. In the same way a fruit tree farmer plants trees knowing that they will only benefit from the tree's fruits five years down the road, timber companies should also plant their own timber trees instead of relying on public forests.

It doesn't make any sense for a hardwood tree that can take as long as 150 years to grow to full maturity to be felled in less than ten minutes. Many of these trees can grow for hundreds of years. In Namibia, a Dorsland Baobab tree has been growing for the last 2,100 years. Here in Kenya, there are baobab trees that are reputed to be more than 200 years old. Imagine if such trees had been cut down for timber after only 10 years.

Because it takes decades for an indigenous tree to grow to maturity, the argument of cutting trees and simply planting others to replace them doesn't hold water. It's self-defeating to cut down trees in their prime.

Prior to 2018, illegal logging activities were rampant in our public forests. This contributed negatively to the state of our rivers, water availability and even food security. Rains had failed for three consecutive seasons. Consequently, the government decided to take decisive action.

On February 24, 2018, then Deputy-President William Ruto declared a three-month moratorium on timber harvesting. Two days later on February 26, a taskforce for reviewing forestry management was gazetted. I was part of this taskforce because, at the time, I was serving as chairperson of the Kenya Water Towers Agency.

Ruto then launched the taskforce on March 5, 2018. When we concluded our work and presented our report to him one month later, he embraced it fully and said, "I commit to you that the report's recommendations will be implemented. I appreciate the fact that some decisions therein would be pretty difficult to make but they will have to be done."

That's why away from any political shenanigans, I am convinced that Ruto has the best interests of our forests at heart. I also appreciate that as president, he is mandated to ensure the wellbeing of Kenyans, including those who were part of the legal logging value chain. They can however resort to monetising non-timber forest products that are worth more than timber because they keep replenishing. They include honey and wild mushrooms.

The global honey market size was valued at $8.17 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach $12.69 billion by 2029. Forest-adjacent communities in Kenya can plug into these billions. Ecotourism activities, Carbon offset programmes, ecosystem services, medicinal plants, research and development fields are part of the areas where billions of dollars can be brought home to support livelihoods.

We should stop regarding timber as the only way of monetising a forest. Logging is the surest way of decimating a public forest, which would then leave a forest-adjacent community completely economically disempowered.

On the economic front, we should focus our energies on developing the economic viability of non-timber forest products. On the legislative forest management front, we should focus on implementing the 26 recommendations contained in the Taskforce Report.

For instance, we still need to employ many more rangers to guard our forests. We also need Forest Regulatory Body that will oversee legal logging. Currently, KFS manages, protects and sells forest resources, which goes against the tenets of accountability.

What has changed since the 2018 ban was put in place?

We still have erratic rainfall. Unlike 2018 when rains had failed for three consecutive seasons, we have experienced five consecutive failed rain seasons. This means that on the rain front, things are worse not better. We therefore have an even greater need for expanding our tree cover, not reducing it through heightened logging.

Since 1990, Africa has reported an increase in net forest loss from 3.28 million hectares per year in 1990, to 3.94 million hectares per year from 2010 to 2020. In Kenya, we lose 50,000 hectares of forest cover per year and replace it with less than that amount. That's why logging is simply not tenable.

Our annual per capita usage of timber is one cubic metre per person, which is the equivalent of three trees. In other words, on average, every Kenyan uses three fully grown 10 - 15-year-old trees each year in various ways that include charcoal and furniture. Cumulatively, we cut and use at least 150 million trees yet produce far less than that every year.

To achieve an additional one per cent forest cover, we need to plant 580 million trees. That's why the 15 billion tree-growing campaign is critical and shouldn't be derailed at all.

We should simply import timber from African countries with a forest cover of more than 50 per cent.

They include the Democratic Republic of Congo; Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea Bissau, Liberia and Seychelles. In the spirit of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) that the President is championing, we can and should import timber from them until our own forest cover exceeds the 50 per cent mark. Think green, act green.