August 13, 2008

Kenyan Writer Urges State to Protect Forests

Text of commentary by Harrison Ikunda entitled "We must act pro- actively to save Kenya's forests" published by Kenyan opposition newspaper Kenya Times website on 13 August

The Mau Forest has lately been in the media for all the wrong reasons. The Mau presents a complex case where the need to protect a fragile ecosystem is unfortunately increasingly getting political connotation. Unscrupulous individuals are out to make a quick buck and don't care that they are exposing the rest of us to an environmental disaster. The rate at which Mau is being destroyed will have very negative implications in the mid-term and long run.

Many countries in Africa, Kenya included, have important natural resources, which they don't safe-guard or protect through proper use and maintenance. Ours is a continent endowed with many clean and natural streams and rivers. Today, most of these have dried up while many are polluted and pose environmental risks. Our leaders have proved to be poor custodians of the environment. Their inefficiency, coupled with weak economic structures, has led to destruction of the environment - as citizens' try to survive. But lately another dimension has set in. It is politicization of environmental matters.

Those MPs who are vehemently arguing that illegal settlers must either be allowed to stay put or else be compensated are not getting it right. It might have been politically prudent to be seen to stand by your people but when one factors in the larger impact of degradation of the Mau system, then the MPs will discover they have been spectacularly narrow visioned. I would like to draw the attention of the naysayers to a globally quoted piece of gem by Prof Wangari Maathai, a Nobel Peace laureate that it is not the generation that destroys the environment that is condemned to suffer the consequences.

At present , the global community is more aware of the crisis posed by environmental degradation due to adverse effects of global warming. However, the rich and more industrialized nations are the greatest polluters yet the consequences of their actions are mostly felt by poor nations. Africa's vast resources have been both a blessing and a curse, courtesy of leadership problems and political interference by the West and now the East.

The continent still remains the cheapest source of raw materials and cheap labour. Following the massive deforestation that has taken place in the country, it is not surprising when urban dwellers have to do without water because water companies have to ration the little that is available. While we may be quick to blame these companies for our dry taps, the simple truth is that nature is slowly but surely hitting back. A key issue to consider in developing countries is availability of a cheap source of energy.

Clearly, with the high cost of fuel. Many people have been forced to revert to wood fuel for their energy needs. We still need plenty of wood products for constructions. All these demands pose a real threat to the survival of our forests. Firewood will remain the most important source of energy or fuel for most people in rural and urban centres for a long time to come unless Governments come up with cheaper alternatives. It was encouraging to hear the prime minister call for expansion of gas storage so that more Kenyans can resort to use of LPG. But unless the cost element is critically considered, it may be a pipe dream.

The increasing demand for land for farming will not abate until we provide suitable alternatives-for an ever-increasing population. In the short term, we need to work at reducing the rate at which forests are being decimated. We must also make subsistence farming less attractive by adopting modern technology and commerce as more appropriate means towards a sustainable future. Planting of forests should be turned into a national culture by educating wan an chi on the benefits of agro-forestry. Besides growing trees for commercial purposes, planting indigenous and some exotic trees should be promoted. In the long run, this will guarantee a stable incomes to farmers.

Originally published by Kenya Times website, Nairobi, in English 13 Aug 08.

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