January 9, 2006

Nobel laureate calls on Kenya to preserve forests

By Nita Bhalla

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai urged
Kenya's government on Monday to do more to protect and
rehabilitate indigenous forests, saying decades of
deforestation had contributed to the current drought.

The Kenyan government says at least 2.5 million people in
the east African nation are on the brink of starvation due to
severe drought, crop failure and depletion of livestock herds.

"The tragedies that this country is facing today such as
drought, famine and poverty have been exacerbated by the
gradual degradation of our environment -- including indigenous
forests," Maathai, who was awarded her Nobel Peace Prize in
2004 for her devotion to Africa's forests, said in a statement.

Kenya's original forests have depleted over last century,
starting during the time of British colonial rule when forests
were cut down to make way for commercial plantations that were
used to supply emerging timber and paper industries.

After independence in 1963, deforestation continued legally
and illegally, with trees cut down by settlers and squatters.

"The cumulative effect of such clear-cutting gradually
reduced indigenous forest cover to what is now a meager 1.7
percent -- which is alarming considering that two-thirds of
Kenya is arid, semi-arid and desert," Maathai said.

Maathai said Kenya needed at least 10 percent of its land
mass under indigenous forest cover. She said this would help to
secure sectors like agriculture, water supply, health,
hydro-power, tourism, timber and paper industries.

"Unless we fully understand the linkages between indigenous
forests and these economic sectors, we shall continue to
trivialise both the role that these forests play in sustainable
development, and the urgency with which Kenya needs to increase
her already depleted indigenous forest cover."