Ideas & Debate

Kenya must act fast to reverse deforestation


We should care about a declining forest cover. FILE PHOTO | NMG

According to the World Bank data, in 2015 Kenya’s forest area was 44,130 km2 or 4,413,000 hectares. Currently, we are losing 50,000 hectares of forest each year through deforestation primarily due to the emergence of an expanding affluent society that wants to dine on steak, drive cars, recline on comfortable seats, live in elegant houses and consume fresh fruits and vegetables. To meet this demand, commercial agriculture for products such as livestock, horticulture, timber and rubber are increasingly encroaching on forest lands.

This translates to a loss of 1.13 percent forest cover annually and amounts to a loss of Sh 1.9 billion every year (Kenya Forestry Services(KFS) – Kenya Open Portal Data). If all factors hold constant, and if we do nothing to reverse it, Kenya shall be a complete desert in 113 years.

Why should we care about a declining forest cover?

One tree can supply oxygen for up to four people on earth per day and absorb more than 21 kg of carbon dioxide per year. Trees serve as natural sponges, collecting rainfall and filtering sediments and other pollutants from the water in the soil before it reaches a water source. It then releases it slowly into streams and rivers.

Global projections indicate that the demand for water will increase by 2050, and more than 55 percent will be towards manufacturing, electricity generation and domestic use. This will leave 240 million people without access to fresh drinking water, and another 1.4 billion people without access to sanitation.

Seventy-five percent of the world’s crops producing fruits and seeds for human consumption depend on pollinators for sustained production, yield and quality. The decline of forests and subsequently that of bees will lead to low food production and food diversity, thus an increase in food costs, malnutrition and other non-communicable diseases. This is against a projected demand of 70 percent more food needed to feed the world population by 2050. So if bees cease to exist, so will humankind.

How do we advance from this morbid reality?

We need to take the shortest path to reforestation if we are to reverse the looming desertification. One innovative way we could do this is through tax incentives. For instance, landowners would be encouraged to plant and nurture trees on their private or communal farms and get a direct deduction on their income taxes once the trees mature up to a certain agreed amount. The tax incentive includes free technical advice for the stewardship of private or communal forest lands. This innovation can be borrowed from the Federal State of Columbus, Ohio.

Secondly, to further strengthen the tax incentives, insurance companies could design forest insurance covers to insure the trees themselves against wind and fire damage, liability cover if the fire spreads to adjoining property or directly insure the forestry equipment. This has been a successful practice in New Zealand.

Thirdly, we could adapt China’s technology that is able to transform desert lands into arable soil. The University of Jiaotong has developed a paste made of a substance found in plant cell walls that, when mixed with soil, is able to retain water, nutrients, and air. Within six months, more than 200 hectares has been turned into plantations yielding maize, tomatoes, sorghum and sunflowers. The result is that 2,400 square kilometres desert land is being reclaimed annually.

Fourthly, we could mirror Brazil’s muvuca strategy. This is a tree planting technique where a lot of seeds are planted in a very small place. The strategy follows the Darwinian theory of natural selection hence several will germinate, compete between themselves for nutrients and sunlight, and ultimately only the strongest eventually become big trees. According to a 2014 FAO and Bioversity International study, more than 90 percent of native tree species planted using the muvuca strategy germinate, are especially resilient, and are able to survive drought conditions for up to six months without irrigation.

Fifthly, carbon trading. The rationale behind carbon trading is that, since it is irrelevant on a global scale where air is polluted, emissions can be saved in places where it is the cheapest to do so. This essentially means that pollution could be emitted in industrialised countries, whereas emissions are saved in developing countries.

Businesses whose emissions exceed a defined threshold, or who operate in specific sectors such as fossil fuel-fired plants, obtain an allowance, or credit for each tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent to that they emit annually. World leaders agreed upon emissions trading in 1997 in Koto, Japan as one of the main elements of the United Nations Kyoto Protoco,l which is a legally binding global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Massive opportunities lie in wait for Kenyans to tap into the $118 million newly launched Livelihoods Carbon Fund. This impact investment fund aims to invest in ecosystem restoration, agroforestry and renewable energy, which will avoid or sequester up to 25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide cover over the next 20 years. The carbon credits offered through this fund are certified by Gold Standard, established by the World Wildlife Foundation to guarantee and benchmark the climate impact of a project and its contribution towards improving the daily lives of local communities and their economy.

Dr Rugalema is FAO Representative to Kenya. Ms Mugwe, is Africa Region Monitoring and Evaluation Expert – UN Women.