Controversy has been brewing around the exploration activities in Arabuko Sokoke in Kilifi by a private company. The raging debate concerns the possible effects of planned seismic operations by the company within the forest.
While the company argues that the activities are being undertaken in compliance with Kenyan laws after obtaining approvals to go on with the exploration activities, local community groups have petitioned both the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) and the county government to cancel the ongoing activities due to environmental and livelihood concerns.
The company has since suspended its seismic activities in the forest. In so doing, they have made a point which is worth discussing further.
That Arabuko Sokoke is a fragile ecosystem and they recognise this status. The rate of exploration in Kenya has increased over the past few years and so has public discourse on many aspects of the discoveries of extractive resources.
The discussions on extractive resources normally focus on oil, gas and minerals. Globally, however, the categorisation is sometimes extended to include forest resources.
Importantly, though, while oil, gas and minerals are the new kids on the bloc, the country’s natural resource base are more extensive and include forest resources.
In efforts to stem the degradation of the country’s forest resources, forest conservation has been included as a Constitutional obligation of the state.
The rate of degradation saw the country’s forest cover reduce at one time to below two per cent against an international recommendation of at least 10 per cent forest cover in a country.
It is for this reason that Article 69 of the Constitution states that national efforts must ensure that Kenya’s tree cover reaches and maintains a threshold of 10 percent. One may ask why seismic exploration in Arabuko Sokoke forest would raise so much fury?
To answer this question we need to remind ourselves of the features of the forest. This forest is the largest bloc of indigenous trees in East Africa and is home to unique biodiversity consisting of both plant and animal species.
Many conservation activities are taking place in the forest. Several of these initiatives have included collaboration between local communities and government agencies.
The forest has seen implementation of Participatory Forest Management initiatives. This past week I attended training of community scouts from Gede and Jilore, two of the three stations that form part of Arabuko Sokoke.
The training sessions were organised by the Institute for Law and Environmental Governance as part of their support to the local community and various government agencies in the development and implementation of Participatory Management Plans for the forest.
The key issue is how to balance between the need for forest conservation and sustainable exploration and exploitation of oil, gas and mineral resources.
Many times these debates revolve around which of those resources is more valuable economically, the competing interests of investors to make profits against those of communities who feel that their interests are not being taken into account.
The principle of sustainable development, one that has been adopted as part of our governance framework by virtue of Article 10 of the Constitution should be our guide.
This principle requires that we balance the interests of development with those of the environment and also human beings. This explains why in modern times we are supposed to undertake not just an environmental impact assessment but an environmental and social impact assessment.
In the current case of Arabuko Sokoke we are called upon to ensure that we consider both the unique and fragile nature of the forest, the functions it serves, the interests of the communities living around and deriving benefits from it and balance these against the possible other resources it may harbour, including possible oil and gas and make a decision that seeks to balance these different interests.
The existence of processes for balancing these interests within our national policy and legislative architecture coupled with relevant government institutions provides an objective framework for the task. It is only then that we will guarantee ecologically sustainable development.
Dr Odote is a senior lecturer Centre For Advanced Studies in Environmental Law and Policy, University of Nairobi.