Re/forestation in Kenya: A Political Intervention or Interruption?

By David N. Munene (@ngich)

“A strategy for real change calls for rethinking processes in their entirety, for it is not enough to include a few superficial ecological considerations while failing to question the logic which underlies present-day culture. A healthy politics needs to be able to take up this challenge” (Pope Francis, Laudato Si, para 197).

Kenya has been witnessing immense environmental tragedies especially during the ongoing rainy season. Alive to the grave and undoable, yet avoidable, dangers associated with deforestation and reckless environmental degradation, there is a difficult-to-ignore enthusiasm that borders on terminal euphoria to reforest.

The “Panda Miti, Penda Kenya” initiative was flagged off by H.E. Uhuru Kenyatta flanked by high-level dignitaries on May 12, 2018 with a target of 1.8 billion trees over the next five years.

Whether there is a clear strategy to accomplish this, I seek to be educated. The launch and clarion call only lasted as long as an infant’s birthday would and was crowned with a showdown of who is who – on a day that was meant to restore nutrition to Kenya’s malnutritioned forest cover.

Kenya’s Deputy President, William Ruto, and the current Environment Minister, Keriako Tobiko, have been on record targeting a 15 percent forest cover by 2022 and planting at least a million trees a year in every county in Kenya. This is quite ambitious. In fact, it means that these two chaps are more optimistic than the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) itself. In its 2018-2022 Strategic Plan, KFS targets “to increase the forest cover by 1.15%” or about 670,000 hectares through five strategic objectives (p. v). These strategic objectives include terms such as rehabilitation, restocking, increasing forest cover, protecting public forests, and strengthening KFS’ capacity. Moreover, the clarion call to increase the forest cover to 15 percent also exceeds the 10 per cent targeted in Kenya Vision 2030 (p. 127). This is progressively optimistic and requires sector-wide and nationwide support to grow trees. Owning this as a personal initiative and responsibility to care for God’s creation will be more effective than scoring political points or championing accolades to self.

1 DP Ruto and Environment Minister, Keriako Tobiko during the launch of the Forest Resources Management and Logging Activities Task Force on March 5, 2018 (photo credits: The Star Newspaper)

Achieving the 10 or 15 percent forest cover is something I stand for and believe in exceeding. In fact, I am making my small contribution by growing some 7 trees in 2018. However, I am not quite clear on the strategy that Ruto and Tobiko have in mind. It strikes me as one of the few superficial ecological considerations that seldom question logic underlying the eco-unjust culture today. Let us perform a two-prong exegesis of their optimism. First, Uhuru and Ruto have the potential to galvanize the country (at least their supporters and the handshake supporters) into planting millions of trees over the next ten years. However, we have been planting trees and the forest cover has not been increasing. My greatest worry is not about the planting, but the lack of properly coordinated and measurable growing of, and the protection of the grown trees.

Poor strategy underlay the “cut one plant two” initiative championed by Former President Moi. Since my childhood years, the people in my community heeded the ‘good advice’ and cut one as they planted two. By the time I was an adult, the number of grown trees had disappeared rapidly and the forests we had are now patches of shrubs. This is because the seedlings were more than the grown trees. After all, we were cutting one (grown tree) and planting two (seedlings) – numbers don’t lie now any more than they did then. We made the mistake of imagining that the responsibility to plant a tree equals the irresponsibility to grow it or the right to cut a grown one.

Second, KFS anticipated that the implementation of their third strategic plan would require an estimated KES 43.650 billion and could afford KES 39.403 over the 5-year period and this left a deficit of KES. 4.247 billion. Let’s get mathematical. If KFS requires KES. 43.650 billion to increase the forest cover by 1.15% in five years and assuming that Kenya’s forest cover is at 7 percent, Ruto and Tobiko will need approximately KES. 303.65 billion to reach their self-set target. Now, for a country that could not afford a few additional billions (on loan) to snake the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) around the Nairobi National Park and save wildlife and national heritage, this reforestation approach snakes through a dark, bottomless abyss.

Finally, Uhuru and Ruto speak of numbers and percentages alone. However, the more experienced, perhaps properly institutionalized (at least I hope so) KFS speaks of hectares and includes a strategy to reclaim lost forest land. The current political leadership seems to steer clear of water catchment areas and grabbed forest land in their reforestation and forestation campaigns.

Granted there are many stakeholders involved and this can be achieved, there is need for strategy and not the kind of jump-in jackals-on-carcass approach we are seeing now. Please, spare us the task force circus and empower the extant agencies, include faith communities to which you all belong, and have our schoolchildren commit to growing a tree each every year. We often churn them out in their millions a year, don’t we?

In my most random of observations and at the risk of sounding pessimistic, Kenya has not made progress on curbing deforestation and its repercussions. However, this does not mean jumping in without a well thought-out strategy or with strategy that lacks proper logic underlying our present-day deforestation culture will achieve anything. We will end up biting our own tail and perpetrating the vicious cycle.