Kenyan president William Ruto has recently made the controversial decision to lift the six-year ban on logging, despite public objections. Ruto claims that this move will lead to job creation and stimulate economic growth in the country. However, Lisa E. Fuchs, a researcher who has extensively studied the Mau Forest Complex in Kenya, discusses the potential implications of this decision.
Why is the lifting of Kenya’s logging ban causing controversy? A logging ban is a political tool, and its effectiveness depends on several factors. Firstly, it hinges on who is included and who is excluded from the ban, as well as the reasons behind these decisions and how the affected parties will be supported in transitioning towards sustainable practices. Secondly, the successful implementation of a logging ban depends on the political will and commitment to adhere to its original intentions. The same principles apply to the lifting of a logging ban. However, it’s essential to note that controversial political decisions are often aimed at different target audiences.
The most recent logging ban in Kenya was implemented in 2018. This government directive was prompted by the depletion of water resources and the ongoing discussions to safeguard Kenya’s water towers. Deforestation rates in Kenya have been alarmingly high since the early 1990s. According to estimates from the United Nations Environment Program, the country’s deforestation rate reached 5,000 hectares per year by 2010. This had significant consequences, including biodiversity loss, changes in river flows and microclimates, reduced agricultural productivity, diminished hydropower generation, and decline in inland fish production. Human health and well-being have also been negatively impacted. Environmentalists argue that lifting the recent ban risks undoing the progress made in recent years to increase Kenya’s tree cover. The country surpassed its target of achieving a minimum 10% tree cover in June 2022 and now aims to raise it to 30% by 2032 through the planting of 15 billion trees. Trees and forests provide vital ecosystem services, such as regulating air quality, climate, and water. They have a profound influence on landscapes, livelihoods, economies, and entire food systems.
I have extensively studied the failure of Kenya’s “Save the Mau” campaign, which aimed to rehabilitate the Mau Forest Complex in 2009. The campaign involved multiple stakeholders, led by the government and supported by civil society. Historically, the Kenyan government has viewed and treated forests primarily as a source of production and economic development, rather than prioritizing biodiversity conservation. William Ruto, both as the Minister for Agriculture (2008-2010) and later as the Deputy President (2013-2022), has consistently defended this perspective.
How have previous logging bans unfolded in Kenya? A similar ban, or more accurately, a three-month moratorium that was never officially lifted, was in place between 1999 and 2011. In 1999, the country’s forests were in a dire state. The blame for this predicament fell on “post box sawmillers”—entities that existed only on paper and were responsible for significant environmental damage. The Forestry Department, which was responsible for registering and licensing these sawmillers, shared the blame as well. The moratorium invalidated the licenses of these sawmillers and restricted their access to public forests for logging purposes. However, what many people are unaware of is that this ban was only partial. Kenya’s major timber-producing companies, such as Timsales, Raiply, Comply, and occasionally, Pan-African Paper Mills, continued to harvest, process, and sell wood, timber, and non-timber forest products without restrictions. These politically well-connected companies monopolized the production and export of wood products and profited greatly from soaring wood prices. In 1999, forest management was still governed by the 1960 Forest Act, a legislation that was widely criticized for allowing the Minister for Forestry to convert public forest land through a simple order published in the government Gazette. Despite the adoption of the groundbreaking 2005 Forests Act and the establishment of the Kenya Forest Service in 2007, the situation did not change as significantly as expected. Existing regulations were poorly enforced, and corruption played a role in both the destruction caused by big timber companies and small-scale saw millers. The Kenya Forest Service has been repeatedly implicated in these issues, as evident from academic and public inquiries, including a 2018 investigation.
What is the current political landscape in Kenya? The political climate in Kenya is highly charged, with William Ruto facing significant pressure since taking office in September 2022. Public protests have been mobilized by the opposition over the rising cost of living. By emphasizing the creation of jobs, Ruto may be attempting to address the concerns of the people related to the economy. However, interfering with the country’s forests can also be seen as a direct challenge to Raila Odinga, the opposition leader who spearheaded the “Save the Mau” campaign until its abrupt end in 2010-11. Ruto and his allies played a significant role in halting the campaign. During the 2022 electoral campaign, Ruto promised change and economic empowerment through a bottom-up development model. Redistributing access to and benefits from the country’s forests may resonate with many rural communities and individuals who rely on forest resources and align with the interests of their political representatives. Additionally, amidst the burden of an heavily indebted economy, Ruto may be exploring new avenues for revenue generation.
What is the way forward? It is crucial for the government to separate environmental and forest conservation from political considerations and work towards sustainable solutions. Ruto must address the concerns and speculation surrounding the lifting of the logging ban. The Ministry of Environment recently clarified that the ban has been lifted only in commercial forests. However, based on my research in the Eastern Mau Forest, it became apparent that political changes, or even the mere possibility of such changes leading to a redistribution of access and user rights, triggered a “cutting craze” among local residents. Timber companies, small- and medium-sized sawmills, and even community members adopted extremely short-sighted approaches to exploiting the forest and its resources for immediate gains. This short-term vision has had detrimental effects on Kenya’s environment and the global ecosystem. Sustainable forest management, which includes both production and conservation aspects, is not an insurmountable or overly complex task, provided it is not politicized. It primarily requires genuine political commitment.
Credit: Lisa E. Fuchs, The Conversation
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Shambhu Kumar is a science communicator, making complex scientific topics accessible to all. His articles explore breakthroughs in various scientific disciplines, from space exploration to cutting-edge research.