There is a furore currently over forest logging and charcoal burning considered as the cause of the drought and the paucity of river water.
The Kenya Forest Service has explained that the clear-felling going on is only for plantation forest logging with its authority and that logging and charcoal in gazetted natural forests is outlawed and strictly policed.
The debate therefore boils down to whether plantation forest harvests harm water production and if they should be outlawed in gazetted forests/water towers since no one wants such harm to befall areas producing such a critical commodity as water.
The Water Towers Agency seems to consider timber production from the highland forests undesirable.
The gullible public seems to agree with this notion following media reports emanating during the last dry February month.
The question is whether we are being sober and whether the dry spell, which comes every year in the months of February, March, September and October, is caused by highland forest harvests for timber, poles, firewood, pulp and other extractive forest products.
The Kenya Water Towers Agency Order, 2012 defines forestland as “an area of land declared under Section 23 of the Forest Act (2005) to be a forest area”.
The Forest Conservation and Management Act, 2016, defines forestland as “a tract of land, including its flora, that is devoted to growing trees for the production of timber, wood, and other products”.
Water Tower is defined in the Legal Notice No. 27 of 13/4/12, Order creating the Agency, as “an area that acts as a receptacle for rainwater and that stores water in the aquifers underneath it and gradually releases the water to the springs emanating from it”.
BATTLE FOR WATER, TIMBER
The water towers identified are the same 18 land masses comprising all gazetted highland forest land.
It, therefore, appears like a battle for water or timber.
This is manifest from the “Status of Water Towers Inception Report Volume 1 submitted to the National Assembly in September 2013”, whereby little is mentioned of positive timber production but illegal logging and a whole Chapter 3 devoted to timber trees replacement with bamboo.
Geographers and meteorologists identify three types of rain, namely, frontal, relief and convectional. We may add rain by cloud seeding or that by magic rainmakers! Trees do not cause, form or even attract rain.
They protect rain once it falls and do it better than other vegetation because of foliage cover offered to the ground and leeching and trapping of the rainwater as it falls channelling it to the soil to feed aquifers.
The role of trees in water catchments is, therefore, to trap the rain and percolate it to the soil and aquifers and blanket the water from evaporation and run-off by bare soils.
The flipside, however, is that trees, particularly the tall and fast growing ones like eucalypts and bamboo, lose water to the atmosphere as they grow in a process known by plant physiologists as evapo-transpiration.
Paradoxically, the best protectors of catchments are not trees because of these losses to the atmosphere through evapo-transpiration, but short grasses and shrubs, which lose such water sparingly. If we wanted perfect catchments where no loss of water occurs, we could cement all catchments with water-proof material!
All water that is received will then be sent to aquifers and rivers but cause the chaos seen every time it rains with deadly floods in Turkana, Narok, Budalang'i and even Nairobi, not to mention the landslides of places like Meru and Murang’a.
The defence for tree covered water catchments, be they on public gazetted forests, national parks, private lands, community forests or, indeed, any part of Kenya, is that trees do much more than water protection.
When cut, they satisfy wood products’ needs whose demand has failed to be replaced by steel and plastics.
The demand persists even in the most industrialised countries of the world — North America, Japan, Britain, China, India and, indeed, throughout the globe. Those who can satisfy local markets from own sources relentlessly do so by felling their trees.
Those endowed with surpluses such as Canada, Nordic Europe, and Russian, export to those who can afford imports.
Others will forage timber and wood products from anywhere in the world as is done by China and Japan, who ship timber from as far as South Sudan or Guyana or Australia.
We banned charcoal burning in gazetted forests in 1974. The same was done with sawmills out of forests in 1982. We outlawed logging in indigenous forests in 1986 and kicked resident labourers out of the forests in 1988.
In 1999, all logging in gazetted forests was banned only for the Narc government to enact the Forests Act, 2005 and introduce non-residential cultivation for plantations’ development and resumption of sawmilling from gazetted forests in 2007.
Thus, logging bans have been with us before but harmed the economy with unnecessary timber, firewood and transmission/building poles shortages.
The shortages were met by costly imports, smuggling, and clandestine harvests and were thus the proverbial prescriptions of medicine that made the patient sicker.
Kenya has about 1.6 million hectares of gazetted state forests on which 0.13 are plantation forests consisting of cypresses, pines and eucalypts. These plantations established through the Resident Labourers’ (shamba) system aimed at meeting our domestic demands of structural timber, poles, paper, plywood, chipboard, fibre-board, tea curing wood fuel, domestic heating firewood and other wood products.
The plantations must, however, be cut when trees mature then be replanted or regenerated. This was and is still the practice which by 1984 (when export of timber was banned in Kenya), we had a timber surplus that we exported to the Middle East!
Trees’ harvesting for desired purposes needs to be encouraged rather than condemned. Mature trees are intrinsically a flow resource that benefits no-one when left unfelled.
They need removal so that younger ones grow to add to the wealth of the nation.
As we condemn charcoal burners, saw millers, pit-sawyers and power saw operators, we should remember the wealth and employment tree felling creates.
Forestry is about regulating and controlling forest crops so that they are harvested judiciously, scientifically and for greatest socio-economic benefits. Blanket felling bans such, as those reigning in the country today, are economically wrong.
They were clamped first in 1986 on indigenous public forests without proper thought. Camphor, cedar, Meru Oak, podo and other species that were producing furniture, building timber and other fixtures were overnight outlawed.
Imports of Mahogany timber from the DRC replaced our indigenous forest trees and is currently done without a thought of the drain in foreign exchange involved. We have even heard people prescribing imports for all our needs.
Surely, we have heard of the cobbler who walks without shoes! Then followed criminalising sawmilling activities. A cat and mouse game followed between the forest authority and the forest users.
The game has been costly to both the economy and the environment. Economically because we create wood hunger that should not be there.
Environmentally because the illegal felling is done clandestinely, haphazardly, unscientifically and resource wastefully whereby immature trees are felled in ecologically fragile areas.
The forests of Kenya now stand at around 6 per cent of the total land area far below the Global recommendation of 10. We should, however, remember that the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations that made this prescription was referring to managed forests that provide needed goods and services, not shrines to be worshipped as untouchable.
They must serve communities. Keeping off the citizenry will not do as this breeds unnecessary and unstoppable resistance to conservation while harvesting products with pro-people regulations is the way to ensure fruits of conservation.
Trees must be planted purposely. They should never be planted for water preservation only.
In fact, the bamboo being planted in Mau that will not be harvested, is a sheer waste of money that should be fighting famine in Baringo, Turkana and Kajiado! The country has 150,000 hectares of bamboo that sits in highland gazetted forests crying for utilisation.
While we must conserve forests, Kenyan forestry was and is still capable of what is called multiple use involving water catchment care, bio-diversity protection, wildlife care, soil protection and production of wood products of immense benefits to our economy.
In addition we can and should continue carrying out successful afforestation programmes using socio-economically-useful indigenous and exotic trees.
However, the common belief that indigenous trees such as podo or croton megalocarpus are superior to exotics is counterproductive.
The country needs all trees that can best fight wood hunger. Sustainable forestry management deems it fit to include exotic plants such as cypresses, leucina, mango, avocado, eucalypts, grevillea, pines and casuarinas in afforestation programmes.
Desired goods and services not forgetting Wanjiku’s firewood should be the guiding principle for which both exotics and indigenous trees exist.
Vitriol has been poured on eucalypts as water consumers and dryers of rivers. People have been advised to avoid eucalyptus even where they offer lifelines in Nairobi, Kisii or Kakamega.
This is a threat to forestation because the top prize of forestation programmes can easily be placed on eucalypts as a group. Their versatility, fast growth and survival under extremely harsh environments make them champions of forestry in India, Brazil, most of Africa and all over the world.
They contribute more than other planted trees to provision of firewood, poles, timber, pulp and many other products. Water consumption notwithstanding, for every litre of water evapo-transpired by eucalypts, much more biomass is made than most other trees!
We cannot afford as we have recently done, being Jeremiah(s) of imaginary doom’s day syndrome of rivers drying because of properly conducted and authorised forest logging.
Wamugunda Geteria is a Forest consultant, Former Deputy Chief Conservator of forests and an environment lawyer. [email protected]