Lifting logging ban invites return to bad old ways
Predictably, President William Ruto’s recent lifting of the six-year-old logging ban has drawn sharp criticism because it is seen as premature and unnecessary by environmentalists and climate change activists, who believe that the reasons that forced the imposition of the ban are alive and well and the ban should, therefore, stay. The ban was decreed in 2018 against the backdrop of a widespread public outcry over the destruction of water towers. There was particular concern over the destruction of the Mau Forest in the Rift Valley, a most important water tower and a key source of water for Lake Victoria. Rivers flowing from the Mau were seriously depleted and there was concern across the East African region. The Cherangany Hills, Mt Elgon, the Aberdares and the Mt Kenya water towers were also hard hit with deforestation, wanton logging and illegal settlements. The situation was sufficiently concerning for the National Assembly to plead with the government to suspend logging in order to arrest the diminishing forest cover. The ban was effected and a task force set up to look into the operations of the Kenya Forestry Service. It was to recommend measures to address whatever it saw as challenges hobbling the work of the KFS. Ironically, the task force was inaugurated by then Deputy President William Ruto, who said what is always said at such functions – that the government would fully implement the recommendations that the committee made. Now his government is doing what governments always do – ignore the recommendations of special task forces and, in fact, do the exact opposite. By lifting the ban before the recommendations are fully effected, the government is allowing the KFS to continue mismanaging this critical resource. A key finding of the task force was that the forest service “oversaw wanton destruction of forests” and “executed plunder and pillaging of water towers.” Its recommendations included an investigation and prosecution of agency officials found culpable, constitution of a caretaker management team and a complete overhaul of forest management practices. It proposed wide-ranging changes in the issuing of logging licences and the general management of logging activities. Most, if not all of these have never been implemented, and they are unlikely to be in the new circumstances. It is counter-intuitive that the lifting of the ban comes at a time when the positive outcomes of the ban are being seen. The forest cover is recovering, the water towers have started looking healthy and rivers have started filling up again. But it is still very early days and if anything, firmer action is what one would expect to sustain the recovery. Sustaining the ban would be more in line with the progressive stature that the government has taken regarding climate and environmental health. The President, for example, has been pleasantly vocal in his support for global funding to mitigate the effect of climate change. He has been critical of what he sees as a reluctance of the main polluters of the environment to step up and take responsibility. He has even proposed that the Conference of Parties (COP) talks be scrapped because they have become time-wasting talk shops. At home, the signals have been positive – expanding the forestry ministry to include climate change and environment, commitment to restore and sustain Kenya’s forest cover at above 10 per cent and coordinated efforts to mitigate climate change from the county to the national level. It is surprising therefore to contradict these positive global stances and local initiatives with what really is an untimely lifting of the logging ban. There will be little comfort in the assurance from Forestry Cabinet Secretary Soipan Tuya that the ban will only apply to commercial forests. Which ones are these? The loggers and their associates in the KFS and other relevant agencies whose bad manners and greed prompted the imposition of the ban in the first instance still exist. They are going to see the lifting of the ban as a godsend opportunity to cut trees with impunity. The assertion that we have plenty of trees that call for a total lifting of the ban to allow exploitation is unconvincing. What is a lot more persuasive is the reality of recurrent and worsening droughts, changes in rain patterns, environmental degradation leading to ill health, and an overall negative impact on agricultural production and food security. This is the reality that has sparked indignation and concern from Kenyans aware of the potential negative impact of the lifting of the ban. This decision should be reviewed, just as the decision to reopen the Kenya-Somali border has been placed under review.