Closer to Eden? Kenya Pledges to Plant 7.6 Billion Trees
Nairobi, 19 August 2009 - Kenyan communities will undertake to plant 7.6 billion trees over the next 20 years to address massive losses in forest cover. Kenya's Minister for the Environment, John Michuki, has demanded bold steps amidst economic, social and political unrest caused by forest destruction. According to the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, less than 2% of Kenya is currently forested, far less than the minimum 10% required cover for healthy ecosystems. The Mau Forest, Kenya's biggest, has lost a quarter of its 400,000 hectares. The effects of this are being felt by surrounding farms that rely on a better micro-climate created by the forest, by the energy sector and by Kenya's famous national parks.
The Kenya Atlas, produced by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) for the Kenyan Government, showcases Kenya's disappearing forests, shrinking lakes and changing landscapes by juxtaposing modern satellite images to those taken in 1970. It makes shocking changes visible to the eye. Mr. Michuki says it provides a welcome alternative to long reports and will influence the way that Kenyans understand their changing environment.
Jennifer Hanan came to Kenya this August to witness the great wildebeest migration across the Maasai, Mara. Like many who have visited recently, she reported a wilting environment. "The Mara River is nothing more than a stream in some parts and we passed hippos that were stuck in mud pools that used to have water in them." Lodge owners from another major Kenyan park, Tsavo, report dying hippos there too. Prolonged drought is affecting much of the country.
The capital city, Nairobi, has recently been plagued with regular electricity and water rationing; a situation which UNEP says could be curtailed by increased forest cover. Part of the solution is to revive Kenya's five "Water Towers," the name given to five water catchment areas that source Kenya's major rivers. It is a situation that Kenyans are not taking lightly. There are growing signs of citizen and state activism.
The 7.6 billion call to action by Kenya's Environment Minister coincides with a widely advertised SMS campaign whereby citizens can send a message at a charge of ten Kenyan shillings or 13 US cents to have a tree planted in the Mau Forest. Recently, Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai roused the hearts and imaginations of Kenyans by highlighting the importance of preserving and protecting a list of Kenya's vital wetlands, forests and parks. UNEP's Billion Tree Campaign records 162 million trees planted in Kenya in the last two years from a range of civil society, business, youth, religious, women and non-government organisations. Environmental grassroots activism in Kenya is on the rise.
The Kenyan Government has taken steps to sensitize young people in schools about the importance of trees and the state of Kenya's rapidly changing environment. Raising public awareness through the educational system will have multiple benefits. It assures that if the problem can be managed today, these forests will be protected by future generations as well.