Pricey timber imports spawn shortage

Kenyans’ rising demand for now 38m cubic meters of timber a year, coupled with the low levels of local supply and soaring import prices, is now causing an acute timber shortage.

Statistics now indicate that Kenya spends over Sh3billion yearly on timber imports compared with Sh5million in 1999, to meet rising demand that now stands at 38 million cubic meters annually.

For the past 10 years, Tanzania has been the major supplier for Kenya's construction industry as the government banned logging in 2000. Shortage of timber in the market has led to over-cutting of private forests and wood-lots, trees that are meant for soil and water conservation on farm lands.

Given the high demand of housing in Nairobi and other towns in its environs that has led to the increase of the construction industry in the past three years; the country is now turning to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola's Cabinda area for more supplies.
According to Nelson Omollo, a carpenter in Kibera, it looks like the country has exhausted the Tanzanian market as the price of acquiring timber from suppliers has increased tremendously.

He attributes the shortage to the logging ban that was imposed by the government in the year 2000 that has led to the importation of timber from the equatorial rainforest and that has increased timber costs locally.

Omollo says that prior to the logging ban; most of the timber in the local market was sourced from gazetted forest plantations. "There was a shortage of timber after the ban but the supply gradually improved as demand was met from farms and increased importation. Unfortunately, most farmers have already sold their mature trees and are now selling immature trees," he added.

He says that the situation has forced most carpenters in Nairobi and other urban towns to increase the price of their furniture with exception of those in rural areas who rely on local timber from the villages.

Besides the carbon trading business that is yet to pick up with tree farmers in most parts of the country, there is no incentive for farmers engaged in tree farming to date. The once main plantation species such as cypress and pine, which accounted for over 80 per cent of the country's total plantation area, are now at risk of extinction as their prices too has also increased by double digits.

The shortage is to blame for the lose of thousands of jobs at a time the country is facing massive youth unemployment. Prices of timber products have also contributed to the increase coffins prices forcing the bereaved to spend more money than it was previously.

But the situation is likely to improve in the near future following the revelations by government that the partial logging ban imposed in October 1999 would soon be lifted. "The partial ban on plantation forest harvesting will be done away with soon since we have established that it has given rise to lucrative black market for timber thereby creating an incentive for illegal logging," said a statement from the government.

According to the government the ban has instead increased the cost of forest policing and enforcement and depriving other forest management practices like conservation and forest establishment of scarce resources. The ban though well intended according to the government has been an invisible driver of illegal logging by placing the value on timber very high resulting in attractive returns for the illegally obtained forest products especially timber.

The Kenya Forest Service (KFS) has generated plantation logging plans, and is in the process of completing aninventory that will establish the extent of forest plantations in Kenya.

This plan may help increase the forest cover that currently stands at 312,500 acres that comprises 6 percent of the gazetted forests in the country. The chairman of the Kenya Timber Manufacturers Association Samuel Gitonga admits that saw millers are unable to get enough raw materials to sustain business.

He blames the ban on logging for the escalation of timber prices and loss of over 120,000 jobs in sawmilling sector. Gitonga says that the association id ready to follow forestry management rules in accessing public plantations to meet the local timber demand.

But through innovation a company has already started making coffins from recycled cartons that are biodegradable materials in a bid to save the already depleted forests from extinction.

The East African Packaging Industry makes the coffins from cast- off materials hence reducing wastage and creating more jobs for those who will collect the recycled paper. The use of wooden coffins harms our environment significantly.

According to statistics, Kenya loses 616,000 trees very year to the coffins industry as 80 percent of the dead are buried in wooden coffins. Due to the partial ban, 95,000 acres of over-mature forest industrial plantation valued at over $450 million are undergoing value deterioration as some rot and other falls due to heavy winds.

At the same time, there are approximately 45,000 acres of forest plantations between ages 10 and 22 due for commercial thinning with potential to generate $44 million dollars.
Industry players blame the huge cost gap to the increased timber prices -- from Sh10,00 to more than Sh30,000.

Facing imminent operation problems, the recently rejuvenated 87, 000-tonne capacity Webuye Paper Mills has already started entering into partnerships wit tree farmers in a bid to sustain itself and avoid collapsing again.

The world's forest biodiversity is threatened by a high global rate of deforestation and forest degradation as well as a decline in primary forest area. In many countries, however, there is a continued positive trend towards the conservation of forest biological diversity via dedicated conservation areas.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010 emphasizes that forests where humans have intervened can still hold important biodiversity values, contribute significantly to environmental protection, and sustain livelihoods, provided they are well managed.

The UN agency notes that South America accounted for the largest proportion of the loss in primary forests, followed by Africa and Asia. Other threats to forest biodiversity include unsustainable forest management, climate change, forest fires, insect pests and diseases, natural disasters and invasive species -- all of which are causing severe damage in some countries.

Greater investments in sustainable forest management are urgently required to better conserve and manage forest biodiversity. The country also needs to improve affective conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in production forests.

The country currently allows only Comply, Timsales, Raiply and Pan Paper to access public plantations for timber, pulp wood, plywood and transmission poles.