Experts pitch for money that grows on trees

commercial tree farmingAgroforestry experts are advocating for a change in tree farming from just increasing national tree cover to commercial farming by smallholder farmers, as it emerges that farmers who are already earning from the trees take tree planting seriously than those who plant tree for the sake of preserving the environment.

This, coming at a time when deforestation and lack of tree farming have caused the economy Sh5.5 billion in the last one year. Last year forestry-related commercial activities brought just 1.3 billion shillings into the national economy while deforestation cost the same economy a staggering Sh5.8 billion according to a report released by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
In calculating the losses, the researchers took into account: the effect of decreased river flow on irrigation; the incidence of malaria resulting from deforestation; the loss of productive soils caused by erosion; the effect of reduced water quality on inland fishing; and the above-ground carbon storage value lost. The report further reveals that Kenya has long undervalued the contribution of forests to its GDP.

That contribution is currently estimated to be 1.1 percent, but the report holds that forests actually contribute about 3.6 percent to the country’s GDP. Experts say the country - rather that concentrating on managing and preserving government-owned forests - should focus on increasing agroforestry and promoting commercial tree farming. “The government must start to give incentives to farmers to plant more trees on their farms rather than solely concentrating on protecting government-owned forests.

Only such efforts will help increase our forest cover and achieve our target of realizing at least 10 tree cover,” David Ngugi, director of the Kenya Forest Services, said. “People will be willing to invest more in forests and trees if they know they can earn a decent living out of it.” The government has largely concentrated protection efforts on water catchment areas known as the five “water towers” - the Mau Forest Complex, Mount Kenya, the Aberdares, Mount Elgon and Cheranganyi Hills - which together supply much of the country’s water.

While communities are capable of growing trees and saving forests, the challenge, experts say, lies in meeting the energy demand of some 75 percent of the population who rely on wood fuel and charcoal as a source of energy. “Farmers are capable of growing trees on their farms and at the same time preserving forests, but the desperation to have energy at times overwhelms their efforts. There is need to make other sources of energy more affordable, especially to rural communities,” UNEP executive director Achim Steiner said.

The main reasons for deforestation are unregulated charcoal production, logging of indigenous trees, marijuana cultivation, livestock grazing and human settlements. According to the Kenya Forest Service, just 6.2 percent of Kenya’s total land area is covered with forests. Dwindling water resources, resulting from forest depletion, will affect the push to increase irrigated agriculture. “It is obvious that Kenya as a country will not be able to meet its food security targets unless it can promote water for irrigation to smallholder farmers,” Ngugi said. Already some farmers are benefiting from tree farming.

A group of farmers living near the Kakamega forest are domesticating a certain tree whose leaves they use as an active ingredient in making of ointments and balms. Muliru Farmers Conservation Group earn Sh10 for a kilo of wet leaves that they deliver to the factory. The end products of the leaves are now being sold in over 220 retail stores in East Africa giving farmers an earning of Sh35,000-Sh40,000 on a small plot, ranging from an eighth of an acre to half an acre, which is three times the income previously obtained from maize cultivation.

Kenya tree farmers are also earning from the lucrative carbon trading market where industrialized nations funds clean energy projects in the developing world to meet their greenhouse gases emission targets set by Kyoto Protocol under the treaty’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). In Eastern part of Kenya, over 50,000 farmers organized into 7,135 groups are being trained, monitored and paid by The International Small Group & Tree Planting Program (TIST), an international company that has rolled out tree planting ventures across African and Asian countries.

The organisation acts as the broker of the credits to the developed world. The trees planted by farmers capture and contain carbon as the tree grows.  This stored carbon is sold in the international carbon market to offset the carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere by environmentally conscious individuals, companies and the world’s most industrialised nations.