President Uhuru Kenyatta’s 30% new tree cover pledge is a real deal breaker for Kenya

On Friday, 27th May 2022, we were privileged to join H.E. President Uhuru Kenyatta in an important roundtable for development partners and private sector actors working in the forestry, environment, and climate change sector. This round table saw all the main conservation champions in Kenya’s public, private and civil society sectors converge to witness the unveiling of a signature Tree Growing Programme and Fund designed co-creatively by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry and four UN Agencies (UNDP, UNEP, FAO, UNCDF and managed by the UN Multi-Partner Trust Fund).

The meeting also provided the President with a very good opportunity to articulate his legacy in this critical area, as well as set the tone for Kenya’s greener and cleaner future. However, what was more remarkable about this meeting was not even the constellation of key conservation champions on the house on the hill, it was the announcement that Kenya had managed to meet and surpass the Constitutional 10% tree cover target.

This is huge, but first to clarify something.

Distinguishing forest cover from tree cover: some definitions

Considerably, most Kenyans do not know the difference between forest cover and tree cover. Inadvertently, this could well have led to a slight, but significant ‘error’ in the ‘letter’, but not in the hugely progressively transformative ‘spirit’ embedded in Article 69(b) of Kenya’s 2010 Constitution. We are not sure whether the drafters of the Constitution meant to use the word ‘forest cover’ and not ‘tree cover’ as is currently encapsulated. If they intended to use tree cover, then, without doubt, that 10% constitutional target was just not ambitious enough, as there was no baseline to have informed this target. Indeed, at the time of promulgation of the Constitution, Kenya was yet to undertake a tree cover assessment report.

If the drafters of the constitution meant to imply the use ‘forest cover’, then the 10% target would have been somewhat ambitious, given the prevailing forest cover rates that were then hovering around 3%-5%. A quick comparison to many other progressive jurisdictions globally indicates the wide usage of forest cover instead of tree cover, although tree cover is now becoming fashionable due to the restrictive definitions of the word forest. Indeed, some of the main definitions leave out most of the private or public trees that dot the terrains including fruit trees on farms and along roads, rivers, and alleys.

Notwithstanding, even the definition of forest cover is not as clear and straightforward as one would expect. There are over five definitions advanced by various international organizations, each depending on its strategic interest and/or mandate. The two predominantly applied definitions are the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)’s and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) definitions. FAO defines forests as ‘..land with tree crown cover reaching a minimum height of five meters at maturity but covering at least more than 10% with a minimum area of 0.5 hectares.. ‘. This definition includes young forest plantations that are yet to reach five meters, as well as temporarily unstocked forest areas. The UNFCCC on the other hand defines forests as covering a minimum of 0.05–1.0 hectares of more than 10–30% with trees having the potential to reach a minimum of 2–5 meters at maturity, including unstocked lands that were previously forested.

The emerging consensus, and to ensure ordinary wananchi are not lost in the weeds, the forest is simply a closed canopy of trees, indigenous or exotic that are closely knit forming a unique contiguous ecosystem. In this case, it is important to note that when the drafters of our Constitution were drafting it in 2010, the use of the word ‘tree cover’ instead of ‘forest cover ‘may well have inadvertently lowered Kenya’s constitutional ambition, and perhaps an amendment could be considered in future.

This became clear during this roundtable meeting when President Uhuru unveiled the country’s first ever ‘National Forest Resources Assessment Report 2021’ prepared by the Kenya Forests Service. This research utilized powerful satellite imagery never applied before in Kenya. The report finds that Kenya’s tree cover is around 12.8%, while the forest cover has grown from 5.9% in 2013 to 8.8%. This is remarkable and it is encouraging especially for avid conservationists and environmental crusaders. But it also demonstrates one thing, that maybe the 10% tree cover target in the Constitution should have been framed as the 10% forest cover. Even then, this target was quite low, and President Uhuru’s new directive for a 30% tree cover target demonstrates the scope of ambition expected to drive the country’s accelerated forestry restoration agenda. It is a real deal breaker, with numerous tremendous benefits for Kenya, her people and her globally renowned pristine flora and fauna.

Kenya: History of a country at war with its natural resources

But first a context.

For a long while, Kenya has been a country at war against its natural resources. From a forest as high as 20% at independence to a low of even 3% around 2000 or thereabouts, our history is bedevilled by a strange addiction to land, especially public land. As a result, whole tracts of forests have been annexed previously in the guise of settling landless squatters only to be allocated to powerful individuals as well as to curry favor with the ruling elites.

Thankfully, the current Uhuru administration has maintained the Kibaki Government’s philosophy to recover as many lost lands as possible within a legally fractious landscape, and to devote considerable time, money, and efforts towards their restoration. Within these two regimes, many important water towers such as the expansive Mau, Kirisia, Mount Elgon, and Mount Kenya are being supported to regenerate after a tumultuous past. As a result, the environment and communities as well as the country at large will stand to benefit from this. For this reason, the dynamic duo team at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry led by Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko and the current Permanent Secretary Dr. Chris Kiptoo has been determined and focused on accelerating the gains recorded during the NARC era. The Cabinet Secretary has led numerous tree planting exercises, firmly pushing all the Ministry’s departments, and agencies such as the Kenya Forest Service, the Kenya Forestry Research Institute, the Kenya Forest Service, the National Environment Management Authority, NETFUND, the Kenya Water Tower Agencies to focus on results in this critical area. The Government has also worked to slightly increase budgetary allocations for the sector while leading a raft of legal and institutional reforms that are now just beginning to bear fruits.

A Future that Is greener and cleaner Is now possible

President Uhuru Kenyatta formally unveils the United Nations Tree Growing Programme at State House Nairobi. He also declared that Kenya will now target to reach a 30% tree cover by the year 2050. Looking on is the Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forestry Hon. Keriako Tobiko and a host of other dignitaries and champions of environment that attended this roundtable meeting.

As demonstrated above, Kenya’s aspirational goal for a future that is greener and cleaner is indeed possible, if we all ramp up our efforts towards this vital sector. With the launch by the President of Kenya’s new Tree Growing Programme and Fund, that will leverage on the private sectors’ commitment of approximately 6 billion shillings worth of tree seedlings, as well as the Government of Japan’s agreement to kickstart the initiative with 2.6 million USD through UNDP’s Forestry and Land Restoration Actions for Kenya’s NDC (FLaRAK) Project, the next phase of conservation in Kenya appears to be quite exciting.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of UNDP

By Geoffrey Omedo

Portfolio Analyst, UNDP Kenya

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