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A Tale of Two Peaks: Kenyan Mountains Highlight Stark Choices Facing World's Environment Ministers in Quest for Sustainable Development

Nairobi, 31 January 2003 - A global assessment of mercury pollution and the environmental condition of conflict areas, from the Middle East to Afghanistan, will be among the crucial issues to be discussed by a global gathering of environment ministers.

Well over 100 national delegations are poised to arrive at the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) for next week's crucial talks which come just five months after the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in South Africa.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director, said: "The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation has given us a blueprint for delivering a cleaner, healthier and more stable world. Our meeting is about making this blueprint, this road-map for fighting poverty that respects people and nature, operational".

He said Kenya was the ideal location for environment ministers to meet to activate this action plan with the country exemplifying the challenges and threats facing vast swathes of the developing world.

Mr. Toepfer underlined this by unveiling preliminary results from a survey of one of East Africa's most famous but now most threatened mountain ranges which highlights in miniature the difficulties and opportunities for delivering long-lasting, sustainable, development.

A survey of the Aberdare Mountains, carried out by UNEP and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has pin pointed a huge number of illegal charcoal kilns which are being fed and fuelled by the highland forests upon which local people depend for medicine and water supplies.

The aerial survey, conducted towards the end of 2002, spotted well over 14,000 illegal kilns, some of which are the size of a small factory. They are located mainly in the south and west of the Aberdares.

It has long been known that charcoal production is one of the biggest threats to Kenya's forests and forests across much of Africa, if not the developing world. But until now the sheer scale of the operations and the precise location of kilns has remained a mystery.

The findings, made with support from Rhino Ark and the Kenya Forests Working Group, highlight the need for improved conservation and enforcement in the Aberdares and also the chronic dependency of Kenya on wood as an energy source.

It is estimated that 80 per cent of Kenya's fuel comes from wood with only nine per cent of the population connected to electricity supplies.

The findings also highlight the risks to the environment of poorer countries from uncontrolled and insensitive trade in a globalized world.

Experts say a significant quantity of Kenya's charcoal is being exported out of Kenya to places like the Middle East.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director, said: " "The plight of the Aberdare Mountains underlines some of the key issues we are facing across the developing world. Lack of access to reliable, modern, sustainable forms of energy; the exploitation of natural resources, such as timber and water, without adequately pricing the environmental and health costs and a scarcity of the manpower, equipment and cash needed to properly manage, protect and police such areas," he added.

"Behind all this is the ever-present spectre of poverty, poverty driving people to over-exploit the Earth's life-support systems because they have no alternative. Poverty of the human spirit, among greedy individuals and groups, who are putting profit before their fellow citizens, profit before nature,' said Mr Toepfer.

The importance of developing country forests for wildlife and people, should not be under estimated.

Although they cover less than 2 percent of Kenya's total land area, closed forests harbour a disproportionate amount of the country's biodiversity, with some 40 percent of the mammals species, 30 per cent of the bird species and 35 percent of the butterfly species found in such sites.

Mr. Toepfer said that Kenya also highlighted how a well-funded and dedicated conservation effort can reverse a declining environment for the benefit of people and wildlife.

Mount Kenya, a World Heritage Site, has suffered years of illegal logging and charcoal production leading to erosion, damage to rivers and water supplies and loss of precious wildlife upon which local people depend for medicines and to attract revenues from tourism.

A new survey, again carried out by UNEP in collaboration with KWS, shows that over the past two to three years a new management team is beginning to dramatically reduce the decline.

Since 1999, logging of indigenous trees has fallen by over 90 per cent. For example, in illegal logging of camphor, a highly valuable hardwood, has declined by 94 per cent since 1999.

The number of illegal charcoal kilns has also rapidly declined, falling by 62 per cent. The area of illegal marijuana fields has fallen by 81 per cent.

UNEP, working with the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the Kenyan government, hopes to soon secure international support for an over $20 million project to further improve the Mount Kenya area and the rivers flowing from the region.

The project will work closely with local people on issues including ones to help coffee farmers use water more wisely to initiatives to reduce soil erosion from roads.

Mr. Toepfer said: " We appear to have a tale of two peaks. One, the Aberdare range, where unsustainable development is likely to be pushing more and more people into the poverty trap and the other, Mount Kenya, where we may be finally starting down the road towards sustainable development".

"I would urge environment ministers, coming next week to our Governing Council, to study these mountains and be inspired by the threats but also the possibilities they represent," he said.

"Sustainable development sounds too much like a hypothetical concept for the man and woman on the street. What they want is action. Action on the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation and action on the financial commitments made by developed country governments to developing ones to reverse overseas development aid. Action on reversing the damage to the Aberdares would be a start, a good signal of honest intent," he said.

Notes to Editors

The Governing Council runs from 3 to 7 February 2003.

Governments will review UNEP's progress and activities of the past two years and draw up UNEP's work programme for the next two years using the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation and the WEHAB areas of Water Energy Health Agriculture and Biodiversity as their guides.

Journalists wishing to attend must be accredited with special Governing Council passes. To obtain one please contact Patricia Jacobs, UNEP's Associate Information Officer, on Tel: 254 2 623088 or E-mail: patricia.jacobs@unep.org

For More Information Please Contact Eric Falt, Spokesperson/Director of UNEP's Division of Communications and Public Information, on Tel: 254 2 623292, Mobile: 254 (0) 733 682656, E-mail: eric.falt@unep.org or Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media, on Tel: 254 2 623084, Mobile: 254 (0) 733 632755, E-mail: nick.nuttall@unep.org

UNEP News Release 2003/06