Kenya: Dwindling Coastal Forests Jolts Stakeholders into action

For the first time, key stakeholders concerned with conservation of coastal forests have come together to forge a united front to reverse a worrying trend of accelerated forest loss. During a workshop held in Mombasa on Nov 10, 2011 that saw the formation of Kenya Coastal Forests Conservation forum, field reports were made public that confirmed fears of a looming disaster due to loss of forests and trees that play a critical function in protecting the coastline among other environmental services.

Historically, terrestrial coastal forests were part of an extensive network of forests extending across East Africa to the Congo basin. The reduction in forest area and subsequent fragmentation of forests into isolated remnant pockets has proceeded gradually due to climate change and, in recent years, more rapidly due to human factors.

“…Coastal forests are rich in biodiversity and host 554 endemic plants, 53 endemic animals, and half of the country’s threatened woody plants….” said Mr. Kiunga Kareko programme manager of WWF, in opening remarks at a workshop that initiated the Kenya Coastal Forests Forum

It emerged that large scale utilization of wood in salt processing is a major threat to the survival of coastal forests.

The forum has made its first move by organizing a media fact finding mission to a salt processing factory in Gongoni Magarini district based on reports that it was contributing to accelerated de-vegetation both on-farms and woodlands in Magarini district. Findings were documented and shared with the Kenya Forests Service and NEMA, who swiftly moved and suspended the firewood collection permit of that company. The fact finding mission brought to light critical issues that require urgent attention as to strategies in use over climate change mitigations and their implications.

Most salt processing factories are aware of the adverse climatic implications of coal and other fossil-based fuel in treating salt and have shifted to diverse forms of renewable energy. Shifting from coal to biomass based energy is encouraged. There are however different forms of biomass energy sources whose selection is key to the carbon balance. Biomass is carbon, hydrogen and oxygen based. Biomass energy is derived from five distinct energy sources: garbage, wood, waste, landfill gases, and alcohol fuels. Wood energy is derived both from direct use of harvested wood as a fuel and from wood waste streams.

There is over-dependence on the use of wood for treating salt but no meaningful plans or investment are in place to grow plantations to supply the much-needed wood. This is contributing to de-vegetation and significantly contributing to carbon emission. Trees and forests remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it during photosynthesis to carbon, which they then “store” in the form of wood and vegetation, a process referred to as “carbon sequestration.”

Ideally, it is beneficial to keep carbon locked in wood, to minimize its release to the atmosphere through combustion or decomposition.

Salt companies should diversify energy sources and explore the use of other biomass sources such as garbage, bi-products/waste among others. Use of forest wood as source of biomass fuel should be discouraged essentially because of the time it would take to recapture carbon released to the atmosphere on burning of wood; the carbon storage capacity of the forest may be reduced overall if forest degradation is allowed. Ideal sources are fast growing plants, where it is quicker to recapture released carbon through re-planting/new growth.

In essence besides minimizing the use of fossil fuels emphasis should be put on conserving forests to prevent stored carbon from escaping to the atmosphere, that significantly alters the carbon balance and therefore impacts on climate change.

Another critical issue as relates salt processing and forests/trees and the broader issues of climate change is the energy/heat conversion efficiency of combustion chambers for salt treatment. There is need to ensure compliance to set standards for assured efficiency in energy use.

The Kenya Coastal Management Forum, that is co-hosted by WWF and Kenya Forests Working aims to enhance coastal forest conservation through advocacy, capacity building and research for sustainable development. Members meet quarterly and have prioritized for action the following key threats to coastal forests:

1. Inadequate capacities to actively manage coastal forests.

2. Land and resource tenure insecurity

3. Bureaucracies and inadequate capacity within the Participatory Forest Management process.

4. Urbanization and industrialization. E.g. upcoming mega-infrastructure in Lamu.

5. High population pressure and human settlement.

6. Climate change

7. Encroachment to Forests for settlements and illegal extraction of forests products

8. Poor environmental governance (institutional weakness, weak enforcement, ineffective policies and laws)

9. Inadequate local communities’ participation in conservation associated with lack of conservation awareness.

10. Large scale monocultures such as bio-fuels (e.g. jatropha carcus)- replacing indigenous forest species/ claiming forest land

11. Erosion of Cultural values.

12. Low house hold incomes (Poverty)

13. Lack of current information on coastal forests and their status

By Rudolph Makhanu, Kenya Forest Working Group

http://www.eawildlife.org