The Baobab tree issue is gaining national attention as the committees of the environment from the national assembly and the Kilifi County Assembly held a joint conference to find a truce.
Already the government has approved the exportation of eight Baobab (Adansonia digitate) trees that had been uprooted even after earlier halting the exercise in November last year.
The trees were uprooted in Tezo and Majaoni villages in Kilifi North Sub County to Shekvetili Dendrological Park Limited in Ureki, Ozurgeti in Georgia.
The National Assembly environment committee led by Baringo South MP Charles Kamuren and its Kilifi County assembly counterpart led by Ganze Member of County Assembly (MCA) Karisa Ngirani held a session at the county assembly chambers in Malindi.
The team later on Tuesday and later visited Tezo village and the Bofa area where the trees will be loaded on a ship.
Government officers drawn from the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA), Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and Kenya Forest Research Institute (KeFRI) had a tough time trying to defend the government’s move in the bicameral assembly.
Government agencies insisted that the tree is not a protected species and that the matter was given prominence after African countries survived the Covid 19 pandemic by communities allegedly using sections of the tree as medicine and food that fought the virus.
However, when the team visited Tezo village, Mr Macdonald Munga told them that they sold the trees out of ignorance and earned between Sh. 100,000 and Sh. 300,000 for each tree.
He blamed the government for not educating residents on the importance of the tree, a move that could have prevented them from selling them.
“The forest department has failed over the years to enlighten us about the Baobab tree hence we saw money when the buyer came,” he said.
Mr Munga said that he went to the forestry department in Kilifi town said that the Baobab tree had no economic value and gave him a permit to uproot them.
“For every Baobab, we earned Sh. 100,000 and the reason why we sold the trees is that they occupy large spaces and no other plant can grow near the Baobab tree when the buyer came we saw it as a relief and we had many problems as many of our children were out of school, so we paid school fees,” he said.
But the matter was not taken lightly by MCAs led by Ngirani and nominated MCA Betty Kache who said that the officers had disregarded the economic and social value of the tree.
Ms Kache told the house that the Baobab tree had traditional importance to the Mijikenda people hence it should not be exported to foreign nations.
“NEMA had told us that they had revoked but they came back and approved the move, they should tell us why that happened,” she said.
Mr Ngirani sought for answers from the relevant authorities on why the tree was being exported to benefit foreigners.
“On the issue of the Baobab, we don’t know and we have experts to do with forests here who should tell us what these people want the Baobab tree, that they uproot the whole tree and export it.
What do they get from the tree that we can also do to make it economically viable for our people? We feel cheated because why didn’t the buyer not take the seedlings?” he said.
He urged the government to sensitize the community on the importance of trees around them to prevent them from being taken advantage of.
The team later visited Tezo village, 70 kilometres from Malindi town where they met locals who outlined why they sold the Baobab trees.
Kilifi North MP Owen Baya in whose constituency Tezo Falls joined the team unawares and dropped the bombshell saying that there was nothing wrong that residents did by selling the trees.
He added that the tree was not an indigenous and endangered species since it was introduced in Kenya by the Portuguese in the 1500s and that it was commonly used by the Arabs.
“In the records, we have in Kenya, there is nowhere the Baobab has been categorized as an endangered species and I am the one who pressed the Forestry Cabinet Secretary to allow the eight baobab trees to be exported,” he said.
“My people were paid money and it helped them since the trees were not of any financial help to them,” he said.
Kilifi Women Representative Gertrude Mbeyu who is also a member of the environmental committee said that the two environmental committees will have to travel to Georgia so that they can unravel the reason why it was being exported.
“Sadly, they paid our people Sh. 100,000 yet they sell it in Georgia at Sh. 3.5 million and that is why we want to visit that country and press for compensation,” she said.
Dr Robert Orina told the house that NEMA knew about the issue on 13th July 2022 when the tree had been clamped ready for uprooting and an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was produced which approved the sale.
“We need to create more awareness of the economic value of the Baobab. The document from KEFRI says that Baobab is a low marketable product,” he said.
Dr Chemuku Wekesa from KEFRI challenged the government to inject more resources so that endangered species of trees can be researched and protected.
“We need to focus more on these indigenous species so that we can generate this information to the policymakers to place these species in the right positions,” he said.
Mr Kamuren told the house that legislative arms will come up with legislation to save the properties of Kenyans.
“We will go and follow up and we shall give direction to the concerned departments on the way forward,” he said.