Thursday, October 7, 2010

Why Have The Environmentalists Stolen All Our Forests?

A tree hugger is a term used to describe environmentalist who love trees for their sake and are usually opposed to logging. 

Since time immemorial forests and trees have provided humankind with numerous services and benefits. Such benefits can be economic, social, cultural and of course environmental. In fact for a developing country like Kenya, forests are key to the nation’s very survival and touch on all spheres of our lives. There is no argument on the environmental importance of forests and trees, but it’s rather selfish that our loud and brash environmental brigade has symbolically cornered and stolen Kenyan forests for just one use-environment. I call it environmental romanticism.

To ignore that Kenyans have rights to the natural resources around them is to behave like the proverbial ostrich that buries its head in the ground on sighting a savannah fire and enjoying a short-lived sense of security . The reality is that over 80% of Kenya’s urban populations use charcoal as the primary source of energy for domestic use and over 90% of rural populations use fuel wood as the primary source of energy. To bring this home, it means that although you may not see it, most of the food you eat in Nairobi will be cooked using firewood and charcoal. How else do you explain the fact that the charcoal industry generates 32 billion in a year?

It means that, unless we plan for sustainable wood fuel production by planting more trees on farmlands we will continue to spend scarce resources on futile forest protection and awareness campaigns. In other words a conscious decision to invest in tree growing needs to be made based on the economics of such a venture and not emotions.  As a country, we have a stock of fast-maturing trees that can be planted outside forests to provide for firewood, charcoal and timber. The Acacia xanthophloea, mukau (Melia volkensii) with its durable and termite-resistant timber as well as variants of eucalyptus species are obvious winners on this front if they can be treated as crops in a plantation.

Slow maturing indigenous trees should be allowed to thrive in the natural un-manipulated setting of a forest. It’s evident to all that the environmentalist’s opposition to plantation harvesting has spawned a lucrative black market for poached timber thereby endangering the slow growing indigenous forests set aside for their contribution to biodiversity and environmental integrity .

Courtesy of our indefatigable green brigade, today the word logging is almost derogatory. In days past, this trade was respected, but to call someone a logger today is a near insult! Poaching of trees was not amongst the list of crimes one could commit 20 years ago. True the mpingo tree has become extinct in polite Tanzania, and strong arm tactics may be necessary to deter poachers, but think about the daily necessities of the poor Kibera slum dweller who breaches the electric fence that separates him from building poles in the Ngong Road Forest near Rowlan Camp? Why take such a risk? What alternatives does he have for affordable building material on his meagre earnings? Papa Dioum, a former Senegalese Minister once said that” We will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will understand only what we are taught”. Is it enough to teach poor Kenyans the virtues of forest conservation while ignoring their daily needs for forest products and services? Wouldn’t it be prudent to offer our poor an alternative source of energy?

For the uninitiated, some of the economic benefits derived from forests include provision of building materials, paper and food. Others are utility products such as timber, pulp and poles, posts, wood fuel for industrial and domestic use.  Forests offer employment through opportunities in processing and trade of forest products and energy. Recreation and tourism are other ventures that Kenyan investors need to harness. Although 60% of all wood harvested from forests and trees are used for fuel, forests also contain trees that have natural oils, gums and resins which are used to manufacture insecticides, rubber products, fuel, paint, varnish and wood finishing products, cosmetics, soaps, shampoos, perfumes, disinfectants, and detergents.

Culturally, forest have been said to ground us spiritually and connect us to our primal past. Long before modern religions came to our shores, the forests around many communities were sacred places of worship, meditation and commune with the gods & ancestors. Even today with dwindling forests around the country, we still have numerous sacred sites that communities use to uphold their traditional beliefs like the Kaya forests of the Mijikenda. Forests also offer a wide range of non-wood forest products e.g. herbs, trees of medicinal value, hosting and protection of sites and landscapes of high cultural, spiritual or recreational value

Without taking away anything from the importance of environmental services offered by forests, which also include carbon sequestration, conservation of biological diversity, regulation of water supplies, providing habitat for wildlife, soil conservation, mist rain, wildlife habitats amongst others, we need to be cautious of what Prof. Bernd Heinrich calls the “bleeding- heart “environmentalists,” who absolutely love tree planting because it sounds so “green “only. He says that it’s easy to scream bloody murder against tree planting as a means for biomass energy and industrial fiber production, but there then has to be an alternative (aside from the obvious one of energy conservation). We need either vastly fewer people or vastly more forests, along with a new definition of earth-friendly reforestation”.

The green brigade are not the only guilty party here; hesitant and instinctive  government policy like the logging ban, lack of mainstreaming of forestry into national accounting, lacklusture efforts to link research finding with the market place and destructive cultural practices like slash and burn and pasture renewal using fires also pose a threat to our forests.

So the next time you go out tree planting remember that you need to do it for beyond the much-touted environmental reasons, let it also be for commercial, cultural or aesthetic purposes. Forests and trees should not be monuments, but a usable resource that can be replenished sustainably.

This opinion piece is by Raphael Mworia.  The views expressed here are personal and not those of the Service.  

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