Environmentalists are worried by rampant charcoal burning in Narok county. They warn that the area could be a desert in less than 10 years if urgent measures are not taken. Narok produces 17 million bags of charcoal annually, especially from Ntulele, Mau zone, Ewaso Nyiro, Lemek, Aitong and Nyakweri areas.
Charcoal burning has spread to areas neighbouring Masai Mara Game Reserve, endangering wildlife which is a foreign exchange earner. The opening up of the land has also fueled human-wildlife conflict which has claimed lives, left scores injured and property worth millions of shillings destroyed.
“Wild animals have moved from their habitats to settlement areas because of the destruction, leading to increased human-wildlife conflicts,” says Tuqa Jirmo, a Kenya Wildlife Senior Warden for Community Conservation, Education Extension and Public Programme officer.
The official avers that because of destruction of the environment, conflicts at the few water points have increased. He says natural forests which are water catchment areas like Mau, Aitong and Naimene-Enkiyo are on the verge of depletion, leading to reduced water levels in rivers.
Jirmo warns that river rhine forests are under threat because producers target the acacia tree. “The acacia tree whose presence is an indicator of the high water table is being destroyed.
The destruction going on in Narok is alarming and if no action is taken, the rainfall pattern could change, leading to prolonged droughts,” warns the researcher. “Environmental degradation has started having effects on people’s livelihoods.
Cases of persistent drought that have led to crop failures have been reported,” adds Jirmo. Scientists say some species of birds and animals are disappearing in the reserve that is famed for its diversity.
“We are worried that the pastoral community which depends on livestock and tourism is abetting the destruction of environment which is the habitat for wildlife and a source of fodder for their animals,” he says.
Narok county government earns about Sh1.6 billion annually from tourism in the Mara. The revenue could dwindle if the destruction of environment is not checked.
Sub division of group ranches to individuals has exacerbated the problem. Earlier, it was uncommon because the land used to be communally owned and one could not use it in a careless manner.
“The problem has been exacerbated by sub division of the ranches. The land owned by Narok county government fetches about Sh1.6 billion annually from tourism in Mara. The revenue could dwindle if the destruction of environment is not checked.
Landowners say they are at liberty to do anything with their parcels,” says Jirmo. The destruction could also affect the annual wildebeest migration from Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the reserve if the Mara River dries up.
Enforcement of laws governing the movement of forest products is a challenge because permits are issued to individuals by district forest officers, who claim they want to clear their land for farming, only for the documents to be used in the destruction of public and communal forests.
It is also difficult to verify the permits at police and county road blocks because one cannot tell if the charcoal or the products such as timber are from individual farms or forests. The government has banned movement of forest products, unsuccessfully.
Charcoal burning has changed the land use pattern because most of the traditional grazing areas for the wild life and livestock have now lost the vegetation cover. Dry land agriculture is not sustainable because soil in these areas is fragile.
Because of the aridity and the nature of the area, most farmers who practise this kind of farming harvest twice in five years.
Destruction of environment is also not commensurate with the replacement. Indigenous trees which take years to mature are being felled at an alarming rate in an area where environmental awareness is low.
“Without awareness, the general forest cover will dwindle from 10 per cent 20 years ago to less than 5.6 per cent currently. We need concerted efforts to reverse the situation,” says Jirmo. In Brazil a law that compels farmers to maintain 10 per cent of indigenous forest on their individual land is being enforced, he adds.
“Kenya should emulate countries which emphasise the need to protect the environment by giving communities incentives to protect forests, and enforce existing laws that govern the environment,” he says. But representatives of local communities say people are forced to engage in charcoal business to supplement incomes.
“We don’t get direct benefits from wildlife. That is why the community has turned to burning charcoal and sell timber to educate our children,” says spokesperson John Njapit from Mara Division.
The area Kenya Forest Service Ecosystem Coordinator James Mburu says production and transportation of charcoal has been banned and those who break the law will be punished. “The Narok County Environment Committee has banned transportation and hawking of charcoal and destruction has been checked,” he says.