EAST AFRICAS FORESTS GOING, GOING, GOING AND GONE BY WHEN
The recently published East Africa Report 2012 makes grim reading, when it comes to the forests in the region, as over the past 20 years, between 1990 and 2010 more than 22 million hectares of forests were razed, for logging, through population encroachment and to make way for farming, the latter often shortlived, as the soil quality rapidly exhausts, then forcing yet more clearing of forest to squeeze out another 2 or 3 harvests before the deadly cycle continues.
While between 1990 and 2000, according to the report, a forest shrinkage from 107 million hectares to 98 million hectares was recorded, a loss of 9 percent, the following decade between 2000 and 2010 saw this trend accelerate significantly to 13 percent, leading to a further reduction of forests to now only 85 million hectares.
The biggest culprit in this report appears to be Tanzania, where the shrinkage was way beyond average recorded in the East African region, with a 67 percent reduction compared to Kenyas 33 percent while significantly Rwanda has actually added forest cover during the period, accelerating in fact in recent years as part of a determined policy implementation to restore amongst others Gishwati forest to its former size and link it back to the Nyungwe Forest National Park.
While Tanzania retains the largest percentage inspite of the major losses in recent years, with 45 million hectares of forest, it is ominous that upon a presidential directive the application for UNESCO World Heritage Status for the Eastern Arc Mountains was withdrawn, paving the way for extensive logging and mineral extraction without having to answer UNESCO. This move was ostensibly aimed to prevent finding local activities in the spotlight of the international media, as is presently the case over the hugely controversial plans to build a highway across the Serengeti most recently local politicians demanded that the highway be paved even inside the park belying earlier assurances given even by President Kikwete himself or the planned Uranium mining inside the Selous Game Reserve. Both locations are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, bringing the Tanzanian government and UNESCO officials to loggerheads.
In Uganda, plans by President Museveni have never been shelved to carve out nearly 8.000 hectares of prime rainforest from Mabira to give to a sugar baron for cane farming, inspite of the availability of land or the option to use more outgrowers, something the company has refused as they would have to pay instead of getting it for free. It is worth pointing out that the performance ratio of this sugar company in Lugazi is the worst in comparison with all other major sugar companies, and that the same government has withdrawn from its erstwhile shareholding due to the persistent losses the company has made in recent years.
Also in Uganda is a section of the Murchisons Falls forest above the Nile falls under threat, where again President Museveni seems to think that cutting prime forest to create a golf course is a splendid idea, when a few miles outside the park an almost idle golf course at Pakwach could be upgraded to achieve the same purpose, except in the process leaving the park forest alone. Mindboggling!
And in Kenya is the saga of the Mau Forest ongoing, as is the Karura Forest in Nairobi under renewed threat, made famous for the civil disobedience campaign by the late Prof. Wangari Mathai, who later became Kenyas first ever Nobel Peace Prize winner.
The assault on East Africas environment are many, like the Corridor of Destruction in Tanzania, the constant politically motivated encroachment of Mt. Elgon National Park or the forests in Kibale District, where political opportunism and anticipated gains in voter favour seem to shove environmental concerns rudely aside.
Yet, the changes to the micro climates across the region have started to have a real impact and the quickening cycles of drought and floods has reaffirmed what ecologists and environmentalists have long been saying, that part of the climate change now visible for all in Eastern Africa is home made. Draining of wetlands on an unprecedented scale in Uganda and elsewhere in the region, again with the exception of Rwanda, and the brutal onslaught by chainsaws against the forests in the region, has made an impact already, and unless reversed by copying Rwandas foresighted policy of re-forestation and better organized land use for agriculture, future generations will have to pay dearly for the sins of the present generation of politicians and beneficiaries of unsustainable exploitation of natural resources. One look at the icecaps of Kilimanjaro, Mt. Kenya and the Rwenzori Mountains is enough to confirm the worst fears, that give another 20 or 30 years, they will be all but gone. Quo Vadis East Africa, where to from here. Watch this space as answers will emerge over time.