How Uhuru’s Sh2bn got lost in the forest - Daily Nation

How timber mafia walked away with Uhuru's Sh2 billion

Monday May 28 2018

planting trees

Students from Shunem Girls Secondary School in Lanet Nakuru County plant trees along Nakuru-Nairobi highway, opposite State House, on May 26, 2018 as part of their efforts to conserve the environment. PHOTO | FRANCIS MUREITHI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By JOHN KAMAU
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Detectives have launched investigations into how Sh2 billion allocated to a project launched by President Uhuru Kenyatta to green public schools was stolen in what could turn out to be one of the most expensive tree planting  drives in the country.

The money was meant to finance training of children on tree planting, creation of nurseries in public primary schools, and a countrywide initiative to turn 10 per cent of all primary school land into forests.

The revelations of this misuse and theft of public funds are contained in a confidential report by the recent task force that inquired into forest resource management and logging activities in the country.

Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Forestry, Mr Keriako Tobiko, told the Nation on Sunday that he has forwarded the report, together with the names of the suspects of fraud, to the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC), and a separate report on forensic audit to the Auditor-General.

ILLEGAL LOGGING

The investigations could unearth Kenya’s timber mafia — the powerful masterminds of illegal logging networks and the corrupt officials who make their activities possible. Kenya has a long history of forest mismanagement and widespread illegal logging, which are blamed for the decreasing forest cover and drying rivers.

The revelation of the dark secrets at the Kenya Forest Service could not have come at a worse time for President Kenyatta, whose administration has been on the spotlight for two weeks now following a series of reports on corruption and embezzlement of state funds that has shocked the nation.

The confidential report, a copy of which the Nation has, was not made public when Mr Tobiko handed over the task force findings to Deputy President William Ruto on April 30.

The task force, headed by Green Belt Movement’s chairperson Marion Wakanyi Kamau, asked EACC to investigate allegations against senior forest officials and the loss of billions of shillings as a result of illegal logging and use of private accounts to collect government  revenue.

At the heart of the investigation is corruption at the Kenya Forest Service and the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, whose officers became loggers and poachers.

LOST SH198 MILLION

For instance, at the Elgeyo Forest Station, the government is reported to have lost Sh198 million after Kenya Forest Service staff colluded with sawmillers to underestimate the value of trees under harvest in four plantations.

But the most outstanding loss is that of the Sh2 billion that was meant to set up tree seedling nurseries, create forestry clubs, and build water harvesting infrastructure in schools located in water catchment areas. The aim was to increase the current tree cover from 7.2 per cent to 10 per cent.

Although the then Principal Secretary in the State Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Dr Richard Lesiyampe, once lauded the “success of the green schools and commercial tree growing initiative”, the task force said this was far from the truth.

“There is need for thorough investigations since this programme has been allocated huge sums of money with minimal impact,” says its confidential annexure to the report.

When the task force asked for evidence of this exercise, it was given a report that indicated that more than 205 schools have been covered by the programme, with “over 100,000 trees” planted.  That means every school had tree nurseries worth Sh10 million. Either that, or taxpayers used almost Sh20,000 for every tree planted.

EMBEZZLEMENT

The green schools project was a partnership between the Ministry of Environment, Water and Natural Resources and the Kenya Forest Service, and was supposed to cover all the 47 counties.

However, sources told us that while the project was to be co-ordinated by KFS and presided over by its top officials and other senior officers from the ministry, the huge amounts of money involved turned it into a battleground as officers fought to take charge, leading to acrimony and embezzlement on a massive scale.

The task force has also asked detectives to investigate a former Kenya Forest Service director suspected of colluding with a former ecosystem conservator at Arabuko-Sokoke Forest in Kilifi to harvest indigenous trees. The report says that the  conservator owns a sawmill in the area, and that when the matter of this illegal destruction was reported to the local police commandant, he started colluding with the conservator and the KFS director.

Detectives are also investigating whether a former forest manager in Kwale was involved in the poaching of elephants. The report notes that the manager had access to the armoury, and that a forest ranger had reported that this ammunition “could have been used to poach elephants in Kwale”.

RUNNING SAWMILL

The task force also accuses a chief conservator of forest of allocating an ecotourism site in Irangi Forest in Embu to a company belonging to a relative of a former board member. He is also alleged to have used his influence to allocate a quarry inside the forest to a separate relative of the board member, and of running a sawmill in the Mt Kenya region.

The said forest officer is also being investigated for approving allocation of 100 acres to a currently serving Principal Secretary.

“The intended purpose of this allocation was to facilitate replanting of the site with indigenous trees. This did not happen and the task force found that the area was being use for commercial farming of food crops. Despite this failure, the officer renewed the allocation in 2017,” notes the report, now being studied by the EACC.

The senior forest officer is also under investigation for allocating trees worth Sh30 million to a sawmiller who never remitted the money to the government, an indicator of how the cartels have turned the country’s forest resources into a cash cow.

SUPPORTING MALPRACTICES

The task force was also told in camera that KFS senior officials used their influence to “discipline staff who queried irregularities in the service or those who refused to ‘cooperate’ in supporting malpractices”.

One of the deputy directors of the forest service is under investigation for using two casuals “to undertake cash transactions on his behalf”. One of the casuals had worked at KFS for six years before his contract was terminated at the end of January this year, while the other is now a whistle-blower.

The task force was told that the two casuals would receive money from the deputy director to deposit in their accounts, and then send it to the director via M-Pesa.

“Some money was also deposited directly to the deputy director’s number through an M-Pesa shop at the headquarters,” notes the task force report. Detectives have been given the M-Pesa transaction evidence.