- The frustration building on the part of some saw millers is working as a catalyst for illegal activities leading to wanton destruction of the forest.
- KFS has enlisted the support of communities and volunteer scouts to help patrol the vast forest and monitor illegal activities.
Kakamega Forest is Kenya’s only remaining portion of tropical rainforest.
It has rare tree species that timber barons know they can get for a song and sell for a fortune. And in recent years, their appetite has been insatiable.
Under the guise of cutting exotic trees, the barons compete for the biggest and most valuable logs.
Forest guards look the other way, explaining that the felling of trees follows legal procedure. After all, most of the loggers are licensed.
Kakamega was once part of the African rainforest that stretched from the Atlantic coast across the continent to the Indian Ocean.
Today, only the Democratic Republic of the Congo has a vast area of this forest, but which is also under pressure from timber merchants from as far away as Europe and the Americas.
Kenya’s tiny portion in Kakamega is getting devastated by loggers, both licensed and illegal.
Under the watch of foresters, indigenous trees continue to be cut as the blame game on who is behind it goes on.
Some saw millers accuse their competitors of using their legal permits to harvest indigenous trees.
The forest is of great significance to the local community – it provides firewood, grazing land, medicinal plants and other resources.
To officials of the Kenya Forest Service, the barons are faceless since the applications are only done in Nairobi.
To be prequalified, a saw miller has to pay Sh30,000 to the Kenya Forest Service and get an allocation of exotic forest.
But many fault the procedure used to allocate portions of tree plantations for harvesting, terming it unfair.
For example, Mr Rogers Matsili, a local saw miller from Shinyalu, said he was allocated a portion measuring 1.50 hectares of pine plantation containing 300 trees.
For this, he paid Sh481,675 inclusive of government taxes.
“I had applied for a portion with 1,000 to 1,500 trees but I was disappointed with what I got. It’s very difficult to break even because of the small portions of plantations we are allocated,” Mr Matsili said.
With all applications for tree felling approved in Nairobi, KFS officials in Kakamega are not willing to share the details on the licensed saw millers.
It is this secrecy that shields the identity of companies that are involved in the destruction of Kakamega Forest. Some are actually poachers.
Locals complain that the licensing tends to favour established saw millers from elsewhere.
All saw millers irrespective of where they come from, they argue, should be given equal chance to compete and make profits from the timber business to enable them plough back some of their earnings in support of tree planting to rehabilitate the forest.
The recent ban on logging has its own victims.
Ms Mabel Nyikuli, a saw miller from Kakamega Central, obtained a Sh1.5 million loan from a bank to support her timber business.
“I do not know how I will repay my loan since trees I had harvested are rotting in the forest,” she said.
The trader says there should be transparency in the allocation of tree plantations for harvesting to enable saw millers recover money they have invested in the businesses and earn some profit to sustain their livelihoods.
In interviews with the Nation, local saw millers said their competitors should be monitored closely to ensure they operate within set guidelines and provisions of the law and if found in breach, they should be fined heavily and their licences cancelled.
“We are so frustrated since we are allocated small portions containing 180 to 300 trees yet we have capacity to pay for more trees. This is hurting our operations and undermining our businesses,” Mr Matsili said.
Tree plantations, comprising exotic species, are harvested after attaining maturity at 30 - 35 years.
The saw millers contribute part of the income to buy tree seedlings for replanting in the forest.
The frustration building on the part of some saw millers is working as a catalyst for illegal activities leading to wanton destruction of the forest.
While KFS says that some saw millers lack capacity to harvest large portions, it is not clear in the blame game on who is cutting down the indigenous forest.
The process of getting the licence is open – and only turns opaque at the issuance stage.
After traders pay the Sh30,000 fee, the authorisation letters are signed by the KFS director and copied to regional Head of Conservancy.
After receiving the letters, saw millers are then allocated plantations based on the amount they have paid before they start harvesting.