Not the shamba system but stronger forest governance systems is what we need

Last week’s column may have received an indirect scolding from Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua. Having corrected the Government’s position on reintroducing the shamba system this week, what can the DP, newly appointed Environment Cabinet Secretary Elect Senator Soipan Tuya and the Kenya Kwanza administration do next?

This week, the Kenya Kwanza second in command argued the media had misreported his earlier statement calling for a return to the shamba system. He now argues he was in fact urging farmers to expand our forest cover, protect our water towers and reverse the damage of climate change. This statement speaks more powerfully to the interest of both public and the planet and can be supported.

The needs of a growing and hungrier population and a dying and thirstier planet are interconnected. Getting the balance right in this small corner of the world will be Kenya Kwanza’s central challenge. Four years ago, I experienced this complexity while rallying to protect the rights of the Sengwer. One of the few indigenous people across Kenya, the Sengwer were being forcefully evicted from their ancestral Embobut forest in the Cherenganyi Hills on the western side of the Rift Valley.

As Kenya Kwanza picks up from where Jubilee left off, it is worth keeping three lessons in mind. Food security will not be achieved by pitting agricultural production against forest conservation. All forests like the Cherangany forest complex are at the centre of important and competing policy questions. Among them include issues of historical injustices, ethnicity, resource access, climate change mitigation and human rights.

Secondly, what happens in one forest tips the environmental and development scales for several counties and millions of people kilometres away. At least eleven counties are directly affected by what happens in the Cherangany forest complex. Thirdly, the bigger threat is not subsistence farmers planting maize and potatoes or indigenous families keeping bees and cattle, it is in the commercial loggers, saw millers and land-grabbers that occupy and destroy forests.

Thursday’s release of the Global Witness report provides insight into why the Kenya Kwanza administration must simultaneously address the interests of people and the planet. Over 1,700 people or one person every two days for the last decade have been killed protecting forests and green spaces across the world. Dedicated to murdered Kenyan environmentalist Joannah Stutchbury and others, the report notes that territorial-based conflicts over natural resources are increasing. Restrictions on a free press and the failure of governments to properly investigate these crimes are also responsible for these numbers.

Like Joannah, those we need to protect most, remain largely unprotected by Governments and in death, forgotten by our investigative agencies. As Tracey West writes in her tribute to Joannah, how many more environmentalists protecting our planet will have their lives ripped away before governments stand shoulder to shoulder with the brave?

After weeks of anticipation, President Ruto announced his cabinet to the nation this week. Among them are leaders that could make an important contribution to the nation. Four issues from this week’s Global Witness report are useful for the looming parliamentary vetting of Environment CS Elect Soipan Tuya. Will the incoming CS commit to urging the conclusion of investigations into the murder of environmental defenders like Joannah Stutchbury?

Will the CS recognise the rights of indigenous peoples and local tree-planting communities as an effective way to protect forests? Will the new Administration move to have the amendment bill to the Forest Conservation and Management Act of 2016 withdrawn? Will the environmental ministry establish an interdisciplinary advisory panel of climate scientists, meteorologists, and environmental NGOs to anticipate and generate options for climate change mitigation and participatory forest conservation management?

While the Deputy President’s initial comments on the shamba system may have unleashed a policy and public storm, they have initiated a national conversation on whether the fifth administration will establish stronger forest governance systems or open avenues for land grabbing and the loss of our public forests.

I pray for all our sakes, it is the former.

This opinion was published in the weekly Saturday Standard column 1 October 2022 #StandardSettingKE

Deputy President Gachagua comments in favour of the shamba system and then in support of the afforestation can be seen here and here. The 2021 Global Witness report can be read here. For more on Amnesty Kenya’s work protecting the Sengwer people read here.