Wangari Maathai, the Nobel prize-winning founder of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, died in October, but her group, which has worked with communities across Africa to plant tens of millions of trees, is thriving.
I caught up with them just outside Nairobi, where deputy director Edward Wageni was planting two-year-old silver oak and teak trees in the degraded N’gong road forest, where illegal loggers have stripped vast areas bare. To restore this one small forest to anything like its former density will need 200,000 trees to be planted, but Green Belt works with a local women’s group that helps plant trees and gets firewood in return.
Maathai is now a legend in Kenya, even though successive governments barely tolerated her. But her simple message that tree planting is a social act that restores both the land and communities and counters climate change and drought, is getting through. Kenya’s forests have been mercilessly felled for fuel wood, building material and other land uses in the past 30 years, and this has coincided with temperatures rising, increased droughts and a water crisis.
Kenya is nothing if not ambitious. First shamed, then spurred by Maathai and the Green Belt Movement, last year’s official climate response strategy spoke of planting one billion trees a year. It wants to mobilise 35,000 schools, 4,300 women’s groups, 16,350 youth organisations and many others to establish and manage trees nurseries and then plant out degraded forests. Last week the government announced the first 450m had been planted, which is a good start. By comparison, the UK forestry commission estimates that it planted 31m last year.
The Kenyan government accepts it must move fast to counter an ecological disaster aggravated by climate change. It has moved to integrate climate into the planning system, is building one of Africa’s biggest wind farms near Lake Turkana and is enlisting the help of communities. Here is an extract from the environment department’s official assessment of what has happened in the past 20-30 years:
“Rainfalls have become irregular and unpredictable, when it rains [the] downpour is more intense, extreme and harsh weather is now the norm. Since the 1960s both minimum (night time) and maximum (daytime) temperatures have been warming. Rainfall has increased variability year to year, there is a general decline in the main rainfall season and drought in the long rains season is more frequent and prolonged. On the other hand, there are more rains during September to February. This suggests that the short rains are expanding into what is normally the hot and dry period of January and February.”
The impacts that Kenyan scientists and farmers have observed are uncannily similar to those seen in Sudan and elsewhere across in Africa. John Michuki, minister for the environment, says: “Serious droughts have occurred in the last four years, major rivers show reduced volume, and many seasonal ones completely dry up. The consequent crop failures in 2009 placed an estimated 10 million Kenyans, or one in four of the population, at risk of malnutrition.”
The priority is to protect the country’s five great “water towers” – the great formerly heavily-forested, upland areas of Mount Kenya, the Aberdares, Mount Elgon, the Mau Forest and the Cherangani Hills. Together, these areas provide Kenya with 90% of its water and electricity, storing rain in the wet seasons and pumping it out via the rivers during the dry months.
“We are vastly affected by climate change. The trends are now extreme. We are seeing adverse effects everywhere. When no crops grow, we have to seek aid. Our economy is greatly affected, so adaptation is our priority,” says Moses Omedi, an official in the environment department.
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