Let’s save tomorrow, a tree a day

Care for the environment is as much about our physical welfare as it is about our spiritual wellbeing

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Dr Tom Odhiambo 

Some years ago a politician claimed that rain comes from the heavens and thus there was no correlation between forests and rain. Well, today the drought and starvation in the Rift Valley, where the politician comes from, eastern, north-eastern and Coast regions of Kenya would tell that politician that indeed there is a significant relationship between trees, rain and food. 

Today Kenyans are paying for uncontrolled cutting of trees and for ignoring warnings about desertification and global warning. It won’t be long before the hunger and starvation that is reported in ‘other’ parts of Kenya morphs into a national crisis. It isn’t just the northern and eastern regions of Kenya that  have scant vegetation cover and are, therefore, more susceptible to the ravages of climate change. If one travels from Mombasa to Busia or Turkana, one will be shocked at how much of the land is bare. Kenyans are cutting trees, even in their own homes, but hardly replacing them. 

Kenya has less than 10% forest cover, according to government – this figure is about 7% according to external, global sources. With the recent fires around Mount Kenya and the continued illegal logging in forests, we probably have just a forest cover above 5% – both public and private. In fact, if one aggregated the national forest cover as it appears on the current map from the Kenya Forestry Services, it would all barely fill the landmass for Narok County – surely, the county is clearly not 10% of the total landmass of the country. There just isn’t enough vegetation cover in this country to make life sustainable. 

Even the Kenyan countryside, which had much tree cover just 20 years ago has suffered massive deforestation as the population grows and urbanisation spreads. Where previously people fenced their homes with hedges, it isn’t uncommon to find a brick wall around a home in the countryside today. Schools, churches and government institutions in years past were ‘landmarked’ by the type of trees planted around the compound. Today it is either a wire fence or concrete blocks. As stone and concrete forests take over, there is more dust, which will eventually translate into more infections. There is less animal life, such as birds and insects, which only exacerbate what is already a bad situation. How many Kenyans do notice that there are less bees in the environment, which naturally affects pollination and will eventually mean no flowering and propagation of plant life? 

A majority of Kenyan cities and towns don’t have what is called ‘lungs of the city’ – public green spaces, especially parks, free from air pollution or with limited contamination, where residents can go to, to ‘refresh’ their polluted bodies. Nairobi has just about 5 proper public green areas, which few residents can really access. Nairobi City Park, Central Park, which neighbours Uhuru Park, Uhuru Gardens, the Nairobi Arboretum, and Jeevanjee Gardens. The tree or vegetation cover in these public green spaces is quite disappointing, save for the City Park and Arboretum. Some of these parks have progressively decreased in size as so-called private developers hive off the land to build concrete forests. One can bet that Ngong and Karura forests won’t exist in the next 100 years, considering the seemingly insatiable hunger for land to erect concrete jungles!  

Neighbourhoods that used to be green and leafy are now brown and dry… we must get out of this apocalyptic scene.

But if Nairobians – whose decisions generally affect life in the rest of the country – think that drought is a problem for the village dwellers, then they should think again. This year has probably been the driest and hottest for Nairobi in a decade. The heat has been unbearable, mostly because there is limited vegetation cover in Nairobi. The blocks of offices and apartments retain much of the heat in the day which they release at night, making the nights quite hot. 

Nearly all the neighbourhoods of Nairobi that used to be ‘green and leafy’ are brown and grey and dry today. It seems Kenyan architects, builders and building owners can’t figure out how to ‘build green’. They cut down trees, erect skyscrapers and plant a few exotic flowers and shrubs in these buildings’ lobbies and that’s green for them. Sand, cement, steel, iron and plastic, in whatever combination isn’t enough to produce any structure that is beautiful in the long run. They need nature – some flowers, shrubs, trees – to appeal to the human senses in the long run.  

Kenyans need to urgently think of how to get out of this apocalyptic scene. Let every Kenyan plant a tree at least once a year. The rains are here now. Can’t county governments plan to plant trees in at least 1 percent of their total land area? Let our schools ask pupils to plant a tree either in the school or local community – especially fruit trees – every year of their school time and ensure that these trees are alive by the time they graduate. This would mean more than 10 million trees planted every year, after taking care of loses. The assumption here is that if the combined population of primary, secondary, and postsecondary institutions, all planted trees, one can assume that the surviving trees would be equivalent to the population of primary school pupils.  This way we would guarantee the country a forest/tree cover of almost 20 percent in just a generation – after accounting for normal usage such as for firewood, timber etc. 

Let the ministers in charge of environment, water, land and housing, don overalls, buy some hoes, pangas and spades, get seedlings from KEFRI and the numerous roadside seedling sellers, rally Kenyans and get down to plant, now that the rains are here. Let them show practically what needs to be done, how and why. Let them earn their salaries instead of spending endless hours in meetings, reading from policy papers that repeat the same mantra about climate change and the fate of humanity. The time to act is now – so many environmentalists are saying so. So many people know that this is the truth but like the proverbial ostrich, we are hiding our heads in our cell phones and sheltering in air-conditioned offices whilst temperatures rise. 

Humanity cannot wait for the final meltdown due to climate change. Slogans from politicians, policy papers from bureaucrats, and ‘projects’ from NGOs will not save Kenyans from ecological damnation. Every Kenyan should be obliged to plant a tree, flower, vegetables, something green, and go green. Schools, churches, public and private organisations, among others, shouldn’t see tree-planting and environmental conservation as merely hobbies or a once a year activity. They should be obliged to account to Mother Nature, at the end of every year, what they have done to live better with her. 

As Wangari Maathai reminds us in her book, Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World, care for the environment is as much about our physical welfare as it is about our spiritual wellbeing. It isn’t just that the future is green, green is life and if one wants to live into the future we’d better go green today. A tree planted today is a saving for tomorrow. (

—  The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi; Tom.odhiambo@uonbi.ac.ke

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