Tea Time: Deforestation, Drought and Death


Photo credit:Antony Njuguna from The Daily Nation

I know I have been painting a pretty rosy picture in my posts of my trip to Kenya, because for me, that is what it was. I spent a lot of time looking for green washing from Lipton, but the truth is, Lipton has been practicing good stewardship for so long in Kericho that the Rainforest Alliance certification for their plantation there wasn't that big of a stretch, and the changes they were required to implement were minimal. The difference however, between the microcosm of the plantation and the macrocosm of the country was astonishing to me.

Photo credit: Katherine Younger from the website Kath Eats

Once we left the tea plantation, on our way back to Nairobi, the landscape changed dramatically. On the road we saw that the green of the tea plants and the forest was replaced by dry, stunted, brown shrubbery. The smiling children in their blue school uniforms replaced by untutored children playing in filth by the side of the road. The workers replaced with people standing around in front of shanties, with no employment. The Lipton tea plantation is, in effect, a small oasis of calm, good management and a healthy environment in the centre of a disaster. The disaster is the shocking amount of deforestation of the Mau Forest, precipitating drought and resulting in a population of upwards of 10 million people without food and potable water, and the potential destruction of the Kenyan economic structure. All this after coming through the political crisis in Kericho in 2007-08


Photo credit: Kelly Rossiter

After spending an extremely short time in Kenya, I don't presume to know or understand the very complex political and social issues at the root of their problems, but my discussions with people in Kericho and the reading I did on my return have certainly opened my eyes. In the tiny airport where we started our flight from Nairobi to Kericho there was a suggestion-type box with a sign over top that said "Corruption Complaints Box" which amused me no end - until I realized how pervasive the tentacles of corruption really are.

On the short flight to Kericho we saw a tea plantation in the centre of the Mau forest which was cut out for a former President, simply because he wanted one. We saw countless billows of smoke rising from different areas of the forest where people were burning down the forest, some for fuel, some for land, and some for political reasons. The Government of Kenya has historically turned a blind eye and allowed this to happen.


Photo credit: Kelly Rossiter

Deforestation in the Mau forest has been going on in a full-scale way for decades and after losing about 1/4 of the forest in the past 15 years it is reaching a critical point. The Mau forest is the largest water catchment in Kenya and without it, pretty much everything changes. So why is this happening? Some of it is due to commercial logging. Some of it is due to the people themselves. On the one level, scavengers are cutting down trees on the periphery of the forest and selling charcoal by the roadside because they have no employment. On another level, squatters are cutting and burning trees to claim land to farm,some with ownership deeds, some without. On a whole other level, people are setting fires as a political protest because the Government has finally started to evacuate people from the forest.


Photo credit: Kelly Rossiter

Days after I arrived home from Kenya there was news of arson in the very centre of the Mau forest making it almost impossible to extinguish them. The photo at the top of the article shows how ineffectual fire fighting is when you are so far into the forest and when you have no money for even the most basic protection for fire fighters - the army was forced to fight fire with tree branches. How unsafe and heartbreaking it must have been for them. 4600 hectares of forest were lost in that one fire alone.

No trees = no rain = no crops = no food = no wildlife = no tea = no export = no tourism = no future.

Hippos in Maasai Mara National Park are suffering because the lake of rainfall has decreased the amount of water they can wallow in and they have too much sun exposure, and ultimately the water is contaminated with their waste and they are forced to roll in that. The flamingoes in I saw in Lake Nakuru are suffering both from the decrease in the water and the increase in the salinity and from the pollution from the forest fires. Large wildlife such as giraffes, elephants and zebra are forced out of their habitat because of the forest fires, but small animals perish in untold numbers.


Photo credit: Kelly Rossiter
I come back again, full circle, to Lipton and try to remain positive, but it isn't easy. Richard Fairburn, the Managing Director of the Nairobi and Kericho offices is a passionate advocate of reforestation and promotes it when he can. Lipton has planted upwards of 700,000 trees over the past decade and this year alone they have 140,000 trees in their nursery, ready for planting. Richard told me that they have essentially filled up the land available on the tea plantation and they actively seek people in the community who would be willing to care for the trees in the future. They give those trees away for free, as long as you promise to care for them. Richard said giving them to schools is on the top of the list because the children feel ownership and continue to care for "their" trees.

I did my own bit and planted seven trees, and I"m proud to have my name there.

Photo credit: Kelly Rossiter
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Tags: Deforestation | Developing Nations | Drought | Kenya