Kenyan children planting trees (284990)
Credit: Contributed

(GIN)—Since independence, natural resources in Kenya have been on a fast track to extinction. Today, nearly half of all its forests are gone, resulting in more droughts, floods and other dire consequences for communities, ecosystems, food security and infrastructure.

From 10% of the country covered in forest in 1963, noted Kaluki Paul Mutuku, Youth4Nature regional coordinator of Africa Group, only 6% was covered in 2009.

The nation’s forests have been victims of agricultural expansion, unregulated logging and urbanization.

In 1977, deforestation moved from the back page to the front page with the launch of the Green Belt Movement by Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai. Its mission was to plant trees across Kenya to fight erosion and to create firewood for fuel and jobs for women.

Some 900,000 Green Belt women who were paid a few shillings for their work planted some 30 million trees. For her initiative, Maathai went on to become the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”

Maathai passed away in 2011 but her campaign did not die with her. This year, urgent calls to save the forests were again in the news with a highly critical open letter signed by U.N. staffer Gabriel Rugalema and economist Susan Mugwe.

“Kenya must move fast to reverse deforestation,” was the heading of their piece published by Business Daily of Kenya.

“Currently, we are losing 50,000 hectares of forest each year, primarily due to the emergence of an expanding affluent society that wants to dine on steak, drive cars, recline on comfortable seats, live in elegant houses and consume fresh fruits and vegetables. To meet this demand, commercial agriculture for products such as livestock, horticulture, timber and rubber are increasingly encroaching on forest lands,” they wrote.

“If we do nothing to reverse it, Kenya shall be a complete desert in 113 years,” they warned.

Meanwhile, an informal study by professor Julius Huho of Garissa University had dismaying news about the state of environmental studies in centers of academic learning.

“Students didn’t seem interested in learning about climate change,” Huho recalled. “They attributed its relevance just to farming activities. Only 14.9% thought it should be included in all levels of education (primary to universities). In secondary schools, learners should have a deeper understanding of global warming and climate change and how it can be dealt with.”

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RISING DEMAND FOR PALM OIL THREATENS AFRICAN CULTURE, HISTORY AND TRADITIONS

(GIN)—The palm oil industry is growing by leaps and bounds around the globe but its overnight success is worrying environmentalists.

An estimated 7.5 million acres of land traditionally used or inhabited by local communities has been acquired by palm oil companies, according to GRAIN, a nonprofit that supports small farmers.

In the past decade, politicians in West Africa and countries of the Congo basin have leased out around 4.5 million acres of land for palm-oil plantations, according to Hardman, a London-based research company. Another 3.5 million acres is being sought.

“Foreign companies sniffing around include groups such as Wilmar, Olam, Sime Darby, Golden Veroleum and Equatorial Palm Oil.” The nonprofit Proforest has predicted that “as much as 54 million acres of land in west and central Africa could be converted to palm plantations over the next five years.”

From Liberia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a battle is brewing over where and how palm oil should be developed and its impact on local water supplies, wildlife populations, biodiversity and climate change. But the heart of the matter is control over land. To expand their palm oil production, a number of companies have relied on what critics describe as land grabs.

Alfred Brownell, founder of Green Advocates, a Liberian lawyers’ network, warned: “Palm oil companies will not just displace [people in affected communities], but their culture, their history, their values, their traditional institutions will all be completely altered.”

Brownell reportedly resides in Boston since fleeing into exile after he was threatened by private security guards protecting land being cleared of sacred sites to make way for palm oil development in Liberia.

Clear-cutting forests for palm oil plantations leaves local communities worse off because not enough jobs were created to employ residents who lost their land as a result of the development, he noted.

West Africa’s Upper Guinean Forest, which has some of the world’s richest biodiversity, is threatened by expanded palm oil production, among other commercial activities. If it disappears, Brownell says, so too does the spiritual connection that many indigenous communities have with it.

Meanwhile, palm oil production has been doubling worldwide every 10 years during the past 40 years, says Thomas Mielke, CEO of the market analysis firm Oil World, adding, “Palm oil has become the most important vegetable oil worldwide.”

Today it’s a $60 billion-per-year market that provides material for everything from fuels to food to face paint. Commercial palm oil development is also taking place in Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Ghana.