In the past week the government has issued a temporary ban on logging. We also witnessed incidents of violent drama involving Kitui charcoal trade. These occurrences were apparently prompted by concerns about diminishing vegetation cover, which is negatively impacting the country’s water supply.
The two happenings were political reactions to real national problems, which we have failed to sufficiently address over the years.
Firstly, the country is suffering from an acute deficit of timber supply, which cannot keep pace with huge demands of a fast growing economy.
Instead of criminalising logging of the few trees left standing, we should be funding and co-ordinating mammoth programmes to plant more and more trees to feed the economy with timber, and still leave an adequate forest cover to meet our environmental obligations.
Secondly, the country has not provided ample supply of alternative affordable and clean cooking gas (LPG) to replace charcoal and firewood especially for the lower income rural and urban households.
The other alternative called kerosene is already condemned as unsuitable for health reasons.
Energy Policy of 2004 stipulated the cooking gas solution for forest cover protection. Until we put in place a robust infrastructure and systems to supply all parts of Kenya with affordable cooking gas, we should not blindly condemn charcoal.
We need a “stop-gap” regulated supply of charcoal in a manner that is economically and environmentally sustainable.
It is possible to establish a regulated commercial charcoal industry by establishing charcoal “plantations” in semi-arid areas using trees which are suitable for kilning into charcoal.
When the plantations are growing they shall, of course, be providing a green forest cover.
Incremental economic opportunities also exist in charcoal commodity exports to the high demand Middle East markets.
Timber is a critical economic input for the furniture making enterprises (which is a major employer) and also for the huge building construction sector.
Our forestry sector should be amply expanded to provide both hard and soft timber so that we do not have to rely on imports.
While not condoning illegal logging, we need to appreciate why Kenyans are cutting trees to bridge a real timber scarcity gap.
Further, we need to reinvent our paper-making industry and base it on sustainable feedstock supply, not from public forests but from commercial and out-grower plantations.
Bamboo is said to be a suitable feedstock for paper industry. The paper industry should not be depleting our forest cover but adding to it.
We should also not overlook agro-forestry as a key provider of timber and household energy requirements, while providing vegetation cover. We have seen “forests” of fruit-trees (mangoes, avocado, macadamia) greening many counties, including those that are semi-arid.
Each of the 47 counties has varying capacity to increase its forest cover by whatever method of forestry that is environmentally and economically suitable for the area. This should be an obligation for every county governor.
Whether for timber, paper making, commercial charcoal, or fruit supply, Kenya needs a well organised and targeted national effort to make forestry a giant economic sector which will concurrently meet environmental obligations.
Forestry can be a major jobs multiplier and a generator of tax revenue.
Politicians and “green” lobbyists should avoid over-dramatising the current forest cover predicaments and instead proactively come up with practical solutions which holistically focus on all opportunities (environmental, economic, food security, and energy) forestry provides.
The ministries responsible for environment , forestry, agriculture, energy, industries, enterprise will need to come up with a joint action plan on how the government will move forward to maximise value from the huge forestry potential that Kenya possesses.
Debates on tree cutting and charcoal burning routinely occur every time we are faced with drought, but when rains pour we go silent and do not plant enough trees.
The economy needs ample supply of timber. In the medium term we need charcoal for domestic energy. And above all we need plenty of water for food security.
Synchronising the three prime requirements should be the big conversation in Kenya.