There is great concern about an ongoing post-doctoral research project carried out by Luca Borghesio, a student from the University of Illinois at Chicago, which is clear cutting substantially large plots of indigenous trees in the Mathews Range. Mathews Range, also known as the Lenkiyio Hills, is a range of mountains about 150 km long, in the Laikipia District of the Rift Valley Province in northern Kenya, 50 km north of Isiolo Town.
“Approximately 234 mature indigenous trees have been cut down” says Helen Douglas-Dufresne of the Milgis Trust in her blog “Nine plots of 60-metre diameter have been cleared and 11 more have been marked for clearing”, she adds.
Utter dismay: Community members assessing the destruction
Douglas-Dufresne, other conservationists and the local community in the area worry that this “wanton destruction in the name of research” could have detrimental effects on the overall health of the forest and the environmental services it provides to the otherwise arid plains below the Mathews. They are also irked by the reported secrecy with which the research is being conducted.
Adding his concern, renowned Kenyan conservationist, and Chairman of WildlifeDirect, Dr Richard Leakey said, “I have learned of the research project that involves cutting of trees on a number of plots in the Mathews where we have one of the last remaining pristine forest in Kenya and I find it disturbing”. “I would urge that this project be suspended and that there be a full public discussion of what is being done and why and for whose benefit”, adds Dr Leakey.
The researcher, a tropical forest ecologist, explains – rather ambiguously – in an email to Douglas-Dufresne, that his research is neither covert nor wanton destruction but a study on how human activities, particularly those of the nomadic communities who live adjacent to, and utilize, the Mathews forests, can help conservation.
The big ones: Big trees cut down for research
Of his hypothesis that traditional nomadic activities can help conservation, he draws parallels with the community livestock grazing programme that begun at Lewa conservancy, acknowledging that carefully planned grazing can benefit both people and conservation . He portends that the same might be true in forest areas. How this is linked to chopping down mature indigenous trees does not come out convincingly in his explanation.
When asked about this notion, Dr Richard Leakey said “I find it very hard to believe that cutting so much wood can possibly be justified in the current time when deforestation and climate change are of such concern”. “Kenyan forests [which cover only 2% of the land against a recommended global standard of 12%] should not be destroyed without an extremely good reason and academic research could hardly justify what is happening in the Mathews Range”, he adds.
Ecosystem services: The Mathews is a source of water for the community
The researcher says that he cleared 10 plots of 12m diameter adding up to about 4,521 square meters – about an acre – in the 300km2 forest and therefore in his view it would have no significant effect on the entire ecosystem. The Milgis Trust however has produced pictures indicate that the areas are much larger than this. The ruffled local elders have indeed come to Douglas-Dufresne to seek advice on what to do about the felling of the large trees.
Some weeks back, the community had come into the study plots and evicted the researcher. Reportedly, the researcher paid KShs 100,000 (about US$ 1,300) to some local leaders and was smuggled back into his study area. He however denies this saying that what he paid is the normal government fees that any researcher is required to pay for permits to conduct research.
The Kenya Forest Service, the government body charged with the responsibility of looking after Kenya’s forests, has not been very cooperative and Douglas-Dufresne has not had much success trying to have them stop this project.
Dr Leakey, who sees this as another of those corrupt deals where the local community is being taken for a ride asks for a transparent process. He wonders who did the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for this project to go ahead and asks if the public know of its existence.
“I would encourage readers of this blog to get in touch with the University of Illinois and express concern so that we may put a stop to this destruction which the local community are equally opposed to”, he concludes.