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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 February, 2005, 00:32 GMT
Kenya's struggle to save forests
By Waihenya Kabiru
BBC, Nairobi

As more than 100 environment ministers meet in Nairobi, the Kenyan government is under growing pressure to try to conserve the environment as well as provide job opportunities for its people.
People carry wood on bicycles
Many people rely on logging for their livelihoods

Nearly five years ago, the government imposed a ban on logging in order to curb deforestation and to conserve the country's major water catchment areas.

Despite that the Kenyan government says it remains alarmed at the rate at which the country's forest cover is being depleted.

More than 90% of the original national forest cover has now been lost.

Environment Minister Kalonzo Musyoka bluntly warns: "Unless we rapidly improve our forest cover and our management we will face a national disaster."

But there is growing resentment from those involved in the timber industry, who say the ban on logging is affecting the economy, due to the high levels of unemployment as result of the closure of many sawmills.

Timber town

One of the worst affected towns is Elburgon town, whose economy was devastated following the ban on logging.

The Gachagua sawmills in Elburgon, in the Rift Valley province, used to work flat out.

Now there are a just a few casual workers busy at their machines working on the little timber available from private tree farms.

An estimated 100,000 people who were directly or indirectly employed in the timber industry are reported to have lost their livelihoods countrywide following the government ban, a third of them from Elburgon town.


Last year, Kenya won international recognition when one of its own, Professor Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace prize for her efforts in conserving the environment.

Professor Maathai, a deputy minister for environment, says sacrifices have to be made in the fight to conserve the environment.

Rift Valley
Some 90% of Kenya's original forests have gone
"I know there is pain when sawmills close and Kenyans lose jobs but we have to make a choice. We need water and we need these forests."

Elburgon town is situated along the Mau Complex belt, which according to environmental groups, is the largest remaining forest block in East Africa.

The chairman of the Kenya Timber Manufacturers Association, George Gitonga, complains that the government ban has ruined their businesses.

"We have 1.17m hectares of indigenous forest which is purely for conservation. The 120,000 hectares of plantation wood was meant to support the industry," he says.

"The amount of produce we remove from the forest accounts for only 5% of the total of wood used in the country," he says.

The scramble for Kenya's forest resources is perhaps best exemplified by the struggle by one of Kenya's ethnic groups, the Ogiek community, which has campaigned to be allowed to remain in what they call their indigenous areas, deep within Kenya's forests.

Joseph Towett from the Ogiek Welfare Council says the term forest does not even exist in their vocabulary.

"We see the trees as part of our larger society. We also see the animals and plants as part of our larger environment. This is our home."

With recent ethnic clashes in various parts of the country being linked to dwindling water resources, the struggle to conserve Kenya's environment is fast becoming a major headache for the government.

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