When dead wood is good wood

Stuck between tree shortages and a path to a livelihood, Kenya's wood industries are now moving to take up 'good wood' projects and certification, being promoted as a dual solution to the nation's forestry problems, with both environmental and economic pay-offs.

In recent years, Kenya’s forest cover has been cut to a fraction of the levels needed to ensure water and clean air, standing at now just 1.7 per cent of the total land area – way below the United Nations recommended minimum of 10 per cent. Yet as the Government has moved to slow the chopping, the nation's buyers, users and producers of wood have reeled, hurting hundreds of thousands of Kenyan jobs, livelihoods and homes.

The solution, says the World Wildlife Fund, is 'good wood' growing on farms.

With the cutting down of the Mau Forest hitting Kenyan headlines, efforts to plant more trees in the nation have now proliferated. Yet even as new trees go in, logging remains banned since 1999, through a policy that sought to curb the rising environmental costs of being treeless, but which continues to cause controversy as a solution.

The ban has had a huge impact on the timber industry, estimated as a once-Sh3bn shilling income earner. Many millers, especially in the Rift Valley, have been forced to close their operations. While, last year alone, Kenya spent Sh7bn importing timber, mainly for industrial construction. Wood carving has likewise been affected, as have the majority of Kenyan families.

Three quarters of the rural population and half of the urban population use wood and charcoal as a source of energy. At the same time, that wood-carvers use up to 600 tonnes of wood, for which 50,000 trees are felled, each year, but which provide jobs for 60,000 carvers and the livelihoods of over half a million people dependent on the carving trade.

However, the wood carving has been horribly damaging environmentally. Wood carvers prefer indigenous hardwood species such as mahogany and ebony, which are in danger of being wiped out if measures are not taken to conserve these species.

And for those who have switched to the imported woods, prices have soared. For the furniture business, the prices of imported timber has increased four-fold, from Sh8,000 six years ago to over Sh30,000 now, although the costs have stabilised more recently.

“Traders from Congo, Tanzania and Malawi bring in timber in exchange for food commodities and industrial goods from Kenya,” says Mrs. Thetty of Fine Wood Industries. The company, which specializes in making furniture for schools and hospitals has seen prices fluctuate depending on the duty charged at the border. “We haven’t seen a drastic increase of timber for quite some time. We also buy plywood from big timber companies like Raiply and Timsales”.
Raiply opened a Malawi subsidiary five years ago and is now the biggest timber producer in the country.

Wahome Muriuki of Wahome Teak Furniture also reports that prices have remained relatively stable for the last two years.

Wahome imports finished teak products from Indonesia. “The raw material and the cost of production in Indonesia are cheaper compared to other countries in the region. I prefer to import finished products,” he says.

This widening gulf between local costs and those overseas has seen the Kenya Timber Manufacturers Association lobby the Government hard to lift the logging ban. The association estimates that the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) has pine, cypress and eucalyptus plantations worth Sh32bn, of which the unharvested mature trees and thinnings (weakling trees) are worth Sh15bn
“These types of trees rot and fall if they are not harvested when they mature,” explains Sonkoyo Leakey of the Kenya Forestry Service.

However, “though as foresters we have recommended the lifting of the ban, considering the current issue surrounding the Mau this may not be the best time to lift it,” he says.
And even if the Government did allow such trees to be harvested, not all wood users would benefit. Traditionally, Kenyan carvers have preferred a few selected hardwood tree species for carving. These species tend to be slow-growing and have become over-exploited, in part because of increasing demands from producers also seeking wood for construction, furniture and fuel.

However, there is hope for the dwindling indigenous trees. In 2001, the environmental conservation group, WWF started a ‘good wood’ certification programme to help in conserving the endangered species. The programme is promoting alternative wood for carving by encouraging farmers to grow ‘good woods’ on their farms for the carvers. Neem, Gravellia, Jacaranda and the mango tree are some of the trees being developed as alternatives.

“Neem is naturally growing at the Kenya coast where most wood carvers are. The current growing stock of neem population is enough to sustain the current rate of cutting sustainably” says David Maingi, programme manager of the project.

According to Maingi, sourcing trees from the farms has managed to save over 40,000 indigenous trees from the carver’s knife. “If this was coming from indigenous forests then some species like Ebony and Muhugu would be extinct” says Maingi.

Sourcing wood from farms in itself has also given farmers more incomes and given carvers a dependable source of raw material. In addition, carvings from the good wood are certified and marketed as such in the international market, making them more valuable.

Written by Ken Macharia for African Laughter