DIANA ODHIAMBO: Reflections, legacy and Climate action

There is a need for innovative strategies and practices to alleviate poverty

In Summary

•What caught my attention though was Soipan’s plan, Tuya will be leading an ambitious campaign to have Kenyans plant 5 billion trees

•For this plan to be successful, the Ministry will have to partner with organizations that are leading tree-planting efforts on the ground such as the Kakamega Forest Heritage Foundation.

At a time like this, I can’t help but think about the great Nyeri born, 2004 Nobel Prize Laureate, Wangari Maathai (1940-2011).

Growing up, I never fully appreciated the need to go to war for tree. Of all the things, right? I must admit, what I never understood then, was the power of trees to save a generation - and now I finally get it, because the shoe pinches.

Throughout Africa (as in much of the world) women hold primary responsibility for tilling the fields, deciding what to plant, nurturing the crops, and harvesting the food.

They are the first to become aware of environmental damage that harms agricultural production: if the well goes dry, they are the ones concerned about finding new sources of water and those who must walk long distances to fetch it.

As mothers, they notice when the food they feed their family is tainted with pollutants or impurities: they can see it in the tears of their children and hear it in their babies’ cries - and Wangari got it, and she fought for it - and now I get it!

As I walked down her legacy, I discovered that in Kenya, the adverse impact of climate change is compounded by local environmental degradation caused by illegal encroachments, deforestation and livestock grazing.

Forest cover, for instance, since Kenya's independence in 1963 has been estimated to have dropped from 10% to 6%, losing approximately 12,000 hectares annually.

Again what has that got to do with anything? The experiences in Africa and Kenya specifically, indicate that women especially those from marginalized arid and semi-arid areas are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

This is because; they are in charge of most of the domestic and livelihood activities. They are often responsible for their families and most of their time is spent looking for food and water which are often scarce in such regions.

The women are at the center of the climate change challenge; they have been disproportionately affected as victims.

It is more difficult for grassroots women who find themselves managing families in very strenuous circumstances where traditional livelihoods are under threat and where men are often absent.

There is therefore a need for innovative strategies and practices to alleviate poverty and ensure survival in the face of climate change.

We are days to #COP27, the United Nations conference on climate change. This annual conference brings together around 200 countries to present their plans to reduce carbon emissions.

Kenya has a plan - the plan - trees! This brings me to the legacy that was sacredly protected.

Women Cabinet Secretaries will be driving the initiatives around climate change mitigation.

Soipan Tuya (Environment and Forestry); Rebecca Miano (East African Community, Arid and semi-arid)  and Alice Wahome (Water and Sanitation).

What caught my attention though was Soipan’s plan, Tuya will be leading an ambitious campaign to have Kenyans plant 5 billion trees by 2027, and another 10 billion trees by 2032, with a target to have more than 30 per cent tree cover.

For this plan to be successful, the Ministry will have to partner with organizations that are leading tree-planting efforts on the ground such as the Kakamega Forest Heritage Foundation.

A glimpse at Africa and it’s tree planting efforts

  • In Ethiopia – which had lost 98% of its forested areas in the last 50 years – smashed records in July 2019 when it planted over 350 million trees in a single day. According to a government minister, the planting was part of a national “green legacy” initiative to grow 4 billion trees in the country by encouraging every citizen to plant at least 40 seedlings. Planting trees helped boost farmers’ yields, hold water in the soil, and cool down areas that were getting hotter with climate change, such as the country’s Tigray region.
  • Senegal’s mangrove swamps are also a case in point. The West African nation is home to some 185,000 hectares of mangrove swamps, but around 45,000 have been lost since the 1970s due to drought and deforestation. To combat this, a public- and private-funded effort run by the environment agency Océanium saw 100,000 people from 350 villages perform a mass-planting scheme which replaced a total of 79 million trees. Fully functioning mangrove ecosystems are vital to Senegal’s health – both economic and otherwise. Not only will the extra tidal forest provide a habitat for tree species, and get rid of tonnes of carbon over 20 years, but it will also maintain water quality, prevent soil erosion and protect crucial arable land from floods and high winds.
  • In dry Niger, the spread of the Sahara Desert, hastened by climate change, threatens the livelihoods of millions of farmers and their families. A grassroots movement of farmers took action by planting trees and adapting their agricultural practices to the changing climate. In Maradi and Zinder districts alone, farmers restored over 5 million hectares of land.

Trees provide many ecosystem services and environmental benefits for the planet as a whole. As they grow, they absorb and store carbon dioxide—a major driver of global heating.

In a scientific paper published in Science magazine, researchers estimate that a worldwide tree planting programme could remove two-thirds of all the emissions that have been pumped into the atmosphere as a result of human activities.

Researchers found that tree restoration was among the most effective strategies for climate change mitigation.

They show that the global potential tree coverage stands at 4.4 billion hectares of canopy under the current climate.

Planting trees is therefore considered the biggest and cheapest way to tackle the climate crisis.

So now I understand. I understand why Maathai denounced the late President Daniel Arap Moi’s proposal to erect a sixty-two-story skyscraper in the middle of Nairobi’s largest park (graced by a four-story statue of Moi himself), why she took her campaign public, amidst, police brutality and security threats.

I understand why she refused to be silenced even when Members of Parliament denounced her, dismissing her organization as “a bunch of divorcees.”

I understand her. And eventually, Moi was forced to forgo the project, in large measure because of the pressure she successfully generated! As Maathai said then, "When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and seeds of hope."

It’s time to plant trees! It’s time to relieve a legacy! 

Diana is a gender equality advocate and a climate change champion! A strategic and development communications consultant! Email :[email protected]

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