While he prepares to host dozens of world leaders at next week’s Africa Climate Summit, Kenya’s president William Ruto is facing criticism from some environmentalists at home.
Ruto has been hailed abroad as one of Africa’s green champions. In Kenya, his plans to lift a ban on logging are causing controversy.
Ruto’s government argues that lifting the ban will boost the economy while only affecting a small minority of the East African nation’s forests.
Some environmentalists support him, saying that lifting the ban on chopping down commercial forests will help protect more natural indigenous forests, which suck in more carbon and shelter more wildlife.
Others say lifting the ban contradicts Ruto’s tree-planting campaign and will make a devastating drought even worse.
Kenya has over two million hectares of forests, covering an area bigger than Israel. Of this, about a twentieth is commercial forest, where companies plant and cut down trees for timber.
In 2018, as deforestation reduced river water levels and threatened the supply of drinking water and hydro powered electricity, then-deputy president Ruto imposed a 90-day ban on logging “to allow reassessment and rationalisation of the entire forest sector”.
This ban kept being extended until July this year when Ruto, now president, lifted it. He told reporters in the timber town of Nakuru that it was “foolish” to have mature trees rotting in forests while locals suffer due to lack of income from timber.
“This is why we have decided to open up the forest and harvest timber so that we can create jobs for our youth,” he said.
Defending the ban at a press conference in Nairobi, Ruto’s environment minister Soipan Tuya told Climate Home that deforestation in many parts of the country has nothing to do with legal logging.
Data from Global Forest Watch suggests that forestry is a minor cause of deforestation, compared to the much larger role played by shifting agriculture.
Nevertheless, their analysis suggests that forestry has caused the loss of trees in hundreds of hectares a year over the last decade.
Tuya said the ban had resulted in large economic and job losses in the timber industry and caused Kenya to spend scarce foreign currency importing timber.
“We have a demand for timber products in this country. We have a market for wood, which is doing extremely poorly. We are doing a lot of importation and that has implications to the economy,” Tuya said.
The industry association for Kenya’s forest industry claims that the industry provides about 4% of the country’s GDP and provides jobs directly to up to 50,000 people.
A natural resources management expert at the Nature Kenya environmental society, Rudolf Makhanu, told Climate Home he had “no problem” with lifting the ban for plantations.
He said these forests provide wood and cushion natural forests from degradation. In fact, he said that a “prolonged ban [on logging in plantation forests] can create pressure on indigenous forest, which plays a vital role in carbon absorption”.
Makhanu’s view is not shared by other environmentalists. Kennedy Waweru is a lawyer from the Law Society of Kenya, which is challenging the ban’s lifting in court. LSK argues the government did not adequately consult the public.
At a press conference, Waweru told reporters that lifting the ban on logging is a damaging move which puts the short-term economic gain of a small minority ahead of the long-term well-being of the nation’s environment and future generations.
Geoffrey Wandeto, an ecologist and chair of the Chehe forest association, said that the lifting of the ban “could only worsen” the drought in northern Kenya, which has pushed around five million Kenyans into severe hunger.
Forests are critical to the water cycle, as trees draw up moisture from the soil and release it into the air. When forests are cut down, the soil dries out and rainfall declines, threatening the supply of food, water and hydro-powered electricity.
The Kenyan high court has suspended the lifting of the ban, pending a final verdict.