Why forest cover isn’t getting any better despite tree planting party


Members of the public plant tree seedlings during the Kaptagat Forest Annual Tree Planting exercise. FILE PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NMG

We appear to be stuck on a never-ending journey to less tree cover, despite our wide and earnest efforts to plant more trees. But does it matter enough to fix it?

For sure, as temperatures rise across the country — having already topped the 1.5-degree increase in many countries that the world was targeting as a cap — trees cool things off.

Typically, a forest reduces ambient temperatures by 10 to 15 degrees, which is all the difference in the world in preventing the heat stress deaths that mount among infants and the elderly from 35 degrees upwards.

Trees allow soils to hold water and drain it down into the water table, preventing run-off and creating water towers, from which springs emerge, feeding lakes and driving a virtuous circle of thriving ecosystems and growing water access.

Large areas of dense tree cover generate extra water vapour and rain. Indeed, all round, concentrated trees give us a way forward out of drought, water scarcity and excessive heat too.

No wonder, then, that the Kenya Forest Service announced with such elation we had reached 10 percent tree cover again, having fallen to barely more than 5.0 percent, thanks to the planting of 1.8 billion trees in the four years from 2019 to 2022.

But, with satellite imagery still showing our net forest cover receding, why isn’t this delivering for us? Of course, a sapling planted is a twig compared to the bough of a full-grown tree lost or chopped down for development or fuel.

That gives us a time lag for all those saplings to replace the ongoing losses of established trees, in carbon capture, ground cover and water harvesting.

But our problem goes further. For one recent study found that an average of 18 percent of the saplings we plant die in the first year, and 44 percent within five years, with that figure sometimes running as high as 80 percent. And this is where we continue moving forwards more slowly than we are moving backwards.

For the tree deaths are borne, most often, of neglect. We turn up, dig holes, take photos, plant trees, and take more photos, planet is saved, in corporate and community events galore.

And then who cares for the trees we planted, making sure they don’t become the food of wildlife, or die from insufficient water, or in weather extremes? Are they protected, cared for, and reared, as young trees need to be to ensure their survival? Mostly, no.

So now we need to decide, do we stop at a tree-planting party? Or move to tree rearing to reduce our floods, droughts, water scarcity and high-season heat? Trees, or scorching thirst and parched land?