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How blockchain technology can save our forests

Aftermath of a forest fire. FILE PHOTO | FILE
Aftermath of a forest fire. FILE PHOTO | FILE 

How could blockchain, a technology originally developed to underpin bitcoins, save Kenya’s water catchment areas?

Kenya’s forests have been plundered in recent times to the extent that the environment impact is threatening not only our food security but our posterity.

As an agro-based economy, we heavily rely on rain. The dwindling forest cover has a severe effect on the climate, wildlife, streams and human population especially forest dwellers.

Mau Forest is the largest indigenous montane forest in East Africa. It has the highest rainfall rates in Kenya and is therefore the largest drainage basin in the country.

Its unique plant and animal species have helped industries worth billions of dollars. Many valuable pharmaceutical drugs for example are derived from rainforest plants. The problem is that counties that host such forests see too little of the benefits. Forest are plundered on a daily basis while the counties of origin gain little or no benefit.

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In a global scenario, the Nagoya Protocol, implemented in 2010 was an attempt to make things fairer. It involved over 100 countries all agreeing that if money was made from biological assets, the country of origin must get a fairer share of the benefits. But in reality, this is hard to implement. Keeping track of where biological assets come from, how they are used and who is profiting from them is difficult. This can change.

The Kenya Forest Research Institute could for example take the lead role by mapping all complex life in our forests by sequencing the genomes of the forests’ unique plants, animals and microbes. This biological “big data” can be made accessible for scientific or commercial use...while ensuring that money made from it is equally shared.

If this is tried and tested and found to work, it could unlock a new bio-economy that could be more profitable, inclusive and sustainable than existing forest industries like logging and cattle ranching.

Such an ambitious project is possible because of a new technology called blockchain. Originally developed to support bitcoin, blockchain is a digital record of transactions that cannot be tampered with.

Every piece of biological data from our forests — whether it is snake venom, frog DNA or medicinal plants, would be given a digital fingerprint that is traceable. Whenever the data are used or sold, the transactions would be recorded on the blockchain for all to see.

This will make it possible to track who does what with the riches from our forests...and automatically distribute the benefits back to the counties of origin. This will give the custodians of the forests a higher stake in their preservation.

This project sounds too ambitious and could face various challenges. The identification of the lead agency either from the central government or county governments immediately poses a leadership issue, what with the level of transparency required!

Would the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Kenya Forest Research Institute (Kefri) map and share their data freely and work in harmony?

If our forests become a place where knowledge is extracted rather than raw materials, local economies could boom even as nature is left to flourish.

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