Long-term plan needed to save forests

Forest destruction is not a sudden occurrence. file photo | nmg
Forest destruction is not a sudden occurrence. file photo | nmg 

The government last week announced a 90-day ban on tree harvesting and also appointed a Task Force to carry out an investigation and make recommendations on addressing the challenge of logging in forests.

The acknowledgement of the huge environmental threats that wanton destruction of forests is causing to the country is positive. However, it is insufficient.

The importance of forests is internationally recognised. From providing habitat for species to helping in the fight against climate change and also as their role in purification of the air forests affect many facets of society’s functioning. Despite this, we treat forest conservation way too casually.

The late Kenyan Nobel Laureate, Wangari Maathai spent decades fighting against public policy and action whose thrust was exploitation of forests and forest products unsustainably.

From allocation of forests to private individual for private gain oblivious of their public benefit to illegal cutting of down of trees, she led a lone battle against the destruction of forests.

Her advocacy campaigns, best epitomised by the founding of the Green Belt Movement and the running battles with the police did not convince the government to take decisive and early action to protect our forests.

I remember discussions we had with colleagues from Tanzania who had come to seek being enjoined in a case seeking to halt excision of the Mau forest.

The arguments advanced by the Tanzanian colleagues pointed to the fact that the excision of the forests was having negative impacts on Tanzania, a demonstration of the interconnected nature of the environment as a whole.

The 2010 Constitution recognised the crisis that was our forest destruction. By then the country’s forest over was slightly under two per cent against the internationally recognised 10 per cent.

To reverse the negative trend, the Constitution set a target of not just reaching but maintaining this percentage forest cover as demanded by international standards. However, politics has historically stood in the way of sustainable forest management.

The destruction of forests as documented in the Ndungu Land Commission report was driven by the desire to satisfy the selfish and corrupt desires of the political class.

Forests have been seen by politicians as an avenue for acquiring land illegally with a view to trading in it and making large sums of money. It also became a tool for buying political support.

The environmental impact of the reckless destruction of forests was always ignored. The greatest depiction was the statement by politicians arguing against calls for protection of the Mau forest on the basis that there was no nexus between forest destruction and rainfall patterns and quantity.

The dangers of inaction have caught up with the country. It explains the government’s action to ban harvesting of trees for 90 days. However, a friend of mine asked me a few days ago, what will be achieved in 90 days. It takes much longer than 90 days for new trees to replace those that have been cut down.

There has to be better plan than a 90-day ban. That may emerge from the work of the task force that has been appointed and given two weeks to make recommendations for action. The urgency of the actions may at first sight be decisive.

However, the crisis that is forest destruction is not a sudden occurrence. Consequently, to deal with them through short-term and reactive measures may look nice, but they surely are far from nice.

The dictates of undertaking a sustained and sustainable set of actions is the only way to conserve our forests. There has to be public recognition of the importance of forests, action to plant more trees, avoid destruction of forests, move away from over-reliance on charcoal as a source of fuel, desist from encroaching on forests.

We reviewed our Forest Laws just the other day. The problem cannot be inadequacy of laws and policies. It is about the incentives that exist from disregard of the rules and continued destruction of forests.

Mother nature is very unforgiving if it is disregarded or destroyed. As a country we must recognise that we are paying for our past actions of playing politics with our forest conservation agenda.