What tree felling says about officials


Reports that a fig tree on Waiyaki Way iconic for its historical and environmental importance was set to be brought down by the Kenya National Highways Authority (Kenha) elicited protestations. FILE PHOTO | NMG

The construction of the Nairobi Expressway from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, through Uhuru Highway to the Westlands continues to be dogged with controversy. Last week it was the demolition and eviction of small-scale traders. This week the wanton cutting down of trees along the road sparked widespread condemnation.

While several trees were marked for cutting, reports that a fig tree on Waiyaki Way iconic for its historical and environmental importance was set to be brought down by the Kenya National Highways Authority (Kenha) elicited the loudest protestations.

Kenha’s response was that more trees would be planted along the road and that the tree in question would be relocated and transplanted in some other part of the country. Nothing can be more laughable than such a cavalier response to a monumental issue.

The action demonstrates the lack of appreciation by the government of its sustainable development commitment. Every so often, the government acts as if economic development must be achieved at all costs. The saying a picture is worth a thousand words seems lost on government bureaucrats. To respond in the cavalier manner in which they did is to continue a trend evident in the construction of the standard gauge railway through the Nairobi National Park and the attempts to excise part of Uhuru Park earlier last year for the same project.

If the government had taken its laws and procedures seriously, it would have ensured that the environmental and social impact assessments that are mandatory for such projects were undertaken robustly and honestly and not as fait acompli. The reason EIA and ESIA are important processes is to ensure that possible negative and social impacts of projects are identified, and mitigation measures proposed.

They should be done as part of the feasibility study, not once the ground-breaking ceremony has already happened. The financing decision should be based on an appreciation of the negative effects the proposed investment will have on the people and the environment. Feasibility must honestly move beyond determining whether the project is bankable but also whether it is positive to the environment.

When being conducted the assessments must be public and publicised. The required public consultations must be undertaken, not as a ritual but as a genuine step in involving citizens and getting them to influence the decision about the proposed development. At the international level and within the context of indigenous communities, there is recognition of the concept of free prior and informed consent. This requires that there is robust information both about the benefits and dangers of any proposed investment project, an honest and deep engagement with the community so as to obtain their consent for the project to go on.

If the government took its public consultations seriously in such processes, the discussions the country has been treated to this past week on the fig tree would not arise. It would have dealt with the issues much earlier at the feasibility and design stage.

Planning is also a continuing weakness of the government. Due to its low prioritisation of environmental conservation, planning processes rarely explore options that will not interfere with the environment. This is particularly evident from the fact that until citizens complained, there was every intention to interfere with the historical Uhuru Park for the construction of the project.

Just a few years ago, the government planted several trees along the Waiyaki Way only to now seek to cut them down. One wonders whether there is any appreciation of the importance of long-term planning and doing so in a manner that preserves the aesthetic and ecological value of our city and its natural resources.

Public communication and awareness creation should also be a top priority in projects of such a nature. The approach where government only reacts to public condemnation and twitter attacks is not sustainable and progressive.