Forestry is possibly the only sector in Kenya that never recovered from colonial exploitation.
Colonialists found rich indigenous forests and set upon them for the precious hardwood, replacing them with pine, cypress and eucalyptus plantations.
But the real mess of the forestry sector commenced after Independence, through a combination of legal and illegal excisions, logging and mismanagement.
The logging bans in public forests by the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) in the past 20 years, and the suspension of all government foresters in 2004, are reflections of a system that has failed to deliver national expectations.
In the early 1990s, the sector was shackled by an unresponsive forest policy, inadequate legal provisions, weak institutional arrangements, inadequate incentives and low participation of stakeholders in forest management.
Forest cover decreased from more than 10 per cent in 1963 to less than 1.7 per cent by the early 2000s through deforestation. By 1970, Kenya had two million hectares of natural forests and 170,000ha of exotic plantations.
By 2007, the natural forests had declined to two per cent (1.68 million ha) from 2.5 per cent in 1970, and the size of plantations also dropped to 125,000ha, statistics from KFS show.
The interventions from the government and conservationists over the years have not yielded any substantive solution to the bedridden forestry sector. For instance, in 1994, the government commissioned an analysis of the sector that resulted in the development of the Kenya Forest Master Plan.
The plan had recommendations for legislative, policy, institutional and programme reforms. Indeed, Kenya developed a new legislative framework — the Forest Act 2005 — and transformed the Forest Department in the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources into a fully-fledged parastatal — Kenya Forest Service (KFS) in 2007.
But there is nothing to trumpet about the reforms. Today, there are only 1,165,000ha of indigenous forests, 135,567ha of government-owned industrial plantations, 90,000ha of private plantations, and 2,050,000ha of dryland woodlands, according to KFS.
Much of the 7 per cent forest cover, which is still below the 10 per cent required under the Constitution, is attributed to the entry of private commercial plantations and the sparsely populated woodlands.
The water towers and catchment areas, where more than 75 per cent of the country’s renewable surface water originates, are severely threatened.
The thinking in Kenya today is that it is the government’s responsibility to increase forest cover.
Countries that have succeeded in increasing and sustaining forest cover have achieved this through the efforts of the private sector supported by good policies and laws. This has been the case in Finland where 75 per cent of the land area is covered by forest, with 60 per cent of them privately owned.
Kenya is not the only country in the region whose forestry is facing a crisis.
Kenya can learn from the Tanzanian and Ugandan governments that were in a similar situation 10 years ago but now boast a robust sector. These countries turned around the forestry sector through reviews of both policy and legislative frameworks.
They have conserved the natural forests and ensured forest plantations are efficiently operated on a commercial basis, Mwaniki Ngibuini, a forest management consultant based in Tanzania says.
Tanzania now boasts 40 per cent forest cover, according to the country’s forestry and beekeeping division in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, while Uganda has 25 per cent cover, according to National Forest Authority.
Concessioning is a new concept in Kenya. The Forestry Act 2015 strives to promote private forest plantations to increase the country’s forested area. However, it appears that it is the approach that needs review.
The Act provides for a concession system. However, concessioning of government land for tree planting and exploitation is not possible with the devolved systems where land must remain under the central government.
Kenya needs to emulate Tanzania’s approach to forest management where both the policy and the law are clear on how concessions are conducted.
Private companies in Tanzania accessed large tracts of land for establishing plantations on leasehold basis for 99 years. These include, Green Resources Ltd with 32,000ha in Mufindi and Kilombero, Tanganyika Wattle Company with 13,500ha in Njombe, New Forests Company with 8,000ha in Kilolo, Kilombero Valley Teak Company with 28,000ha, and Mufindi Paper Mills with 28,000ha.
Beneficiaries in Uganda include New Forests Company, Green Resources, and Nile Ply.
Those who qualify for NFA licenses in Uganda obtain financial and technical support from an EU-funded programme — the Sawlog Production Grant Scheme which reimburses 50 per cent of the establishment costs of a plantation on condition that strict quality standards have been met.