Our environmental conservation efforts should have a human face

Illegal logging at Kapchemutwo forest, Keiyo North. [Christopher Kipsang, Standard]

My peaceful New Year’s break in my village in Kitui County was abruptly interrupted by the relentless roar of a chainsaw.

The sound persisted for hours, sparking my curiosity. On a quick bike ride to investigate, I discovered the reason, Mama Kamene.

In a desperate attempt to raise her son’s school fees of Sh52,000, she was struggling with a faulty chainsaw to cut down numerous indigenous trees.

Her plan was to sell firewood to a nearby secondary school. But the school’s offer, I learnt, was only Sh8,000 per truckload, and Mama Kamene would still need to spend half of it on transport cost and a few further expenses on the chainsaw operator and the creation of a way leave for tractor access.

She, therefore, needed to make at least 14 trips to cover her son’s outstanding fees. Otherwise, the Form Four candidate risked being sent home, or not reporting at all.

Tragically, when I followed up with her yesterday, Mama Kamene’s situation had worsened. The school had just informed her that they had an oversupply of firewood and could not accept her consignment in lieu of school fees, leaving her son’s education in limbo.

As a passionate environmentalist, I was, no doubt, disturbed by the sheer sight of indigenous trees going down. But the reality of Mama Kamene’s story reminded me of what many nature lovers are increasingly coming to terms with the need to address the real drivers of environmental destruction rather than just the symptoms.

First, the plight of Mama Kamene and a third of Kenyans living in poverty, demonstrates the urgent need to provide sustainable livelihoods for every Kenyan since poverty results in environmental degradation and environmental degradation in turn bleeds poverty.

Secondly, it is critical to address the demand side of this firewood business. With about 10,500 secondary schools historically using this source of energy as the cheapest cooking option, there will always be a large number of Kenyans seeking to supply the same.

President Ruto’s directive for schools to switch to cooking gas by 2025, supported by additional funding of Sh500 million from the National Assembly, is a significant step in the right direction. This initiative should be followed up to ensure it actually begins to make a difference on the ground.

Further, the Finance Act of 2023 zero-rated LPG (cooking gas) to lower its prices, but these prices haven’t dropped as expected, forcing schools to continue using firewood. Such disconnect between policy formulation and implementation is practically replicated in various other fields of our economy leading to further negative effects such as climate change.

To address these gaps, I suggest that government policies be drawn with a human face. Policymakers need to thoroughly understand the root causes of the issues they seek to resolve. Without this, the policies risk being self-defeating.

Learning institutions on the other hand, as centres of knowledge, need to be aware of the environmental impact of their actions and take proactive steps. They shouldn’t just wait for policies to lower cooking fuel prices, for example, but actively advocate for their creation and implementation.

The 5,000 public boarding schools in the country should lead this advocacy for more affordable cooking gas. They can follow the example of Unyaa Primary School in Kitui, which uses biogas instead of firewood.

My experience with the Kenya Water Towers Agency, sponsoring their biogas setup, shows that funding for such clean cooking solutions is feasible. Accordingly, I encourage corporations to invest their social responsibility funds in establishing biogas infrastructure in schools, utilising the abundant resource of human and animal waste for a sustainable fuel source.

Meanwhile, I pray to God Almighty to enable me pay for Kamene’s son school fees as he reports to school for a crucial year. By the way, just like many of your neighbours, she also has other school going children. Make your prayer too. Think green, act green!