Kenya Lifts Logging Ban, Promising Jobs and Growth

The 2018 ban led to the loss of approximately 44,000 jobs and $28 million in revenue.


On July 2, Kenya's president ended an almost six-year moratorium on logging in the country's public and community forests. 

"We can't have mature trees rotting in forests while locals suffer due to lack of timber. That's foolishness," President William Ruto explained during a church service. "This is why we have decided to open up the forest and harvest timber so that we can create jobs for our youth and open up business."

In 2018, when he was deputy president, Ruto announced a 90-day ban in order "to allow reassessment and rationalisation of the entire forest sector." The government regularly extended the ban as part of an effort to limit illegal logging and prevent the lowering of Kenya's water levels. 

While lifting the ban, Ruto is maintaining Kenya's goal of planting 15 billion trees over the next 10 years. The Kenya Forest Service (KFS) has also set rules for harvesting in gazetted forests, including requiring loggers to acquire entry and exit certificates.

"Some of the areas, in the Great Rift Valley for example, used to be hubs for timber production," says Lubanga Makanji, who teaches environment and resource development at Egerton University in Kenya. "And that means that there were wood processors that would provide employment for the local community. As soon as the moratorium came into place, those jobs were lost." 

According to the Kenya Forestry Research Institute, the 2018 ban led to the loss of approximately 44,000 jobs and $28 million in revenue, bringing economic collapse to communities that relied on the logging industry.*

Ruto's decision has set off a storm of environmentalist anger, with activists accusing Kenya of favoring economic development over its climate goals. John Kioli, the executive director of the Green Africa Foundation, told the Associated Press that he didn't expect the president to achieve his tree-planting goal and that lifting the ban would "undermine all efforts to put Kenya on a low-carbon trajectory."

"By lifting this ban president Ruto has prioritised profit over people and nature," said Tracy Makhet of Greenpeace Africa in a press release. "The ban on logging in public and community forests should not be based on monetary value, but rather on restoring our natural forests with indigenous trees."

"Not all forests have trees that are ready for harvesting and we don't have a framework to identify which forests, or which trees in which forests, are to be harvested," notes Douglas Kivoi, a policy analyst at the Kenya Institute for Public Policy and Analysis. "Our forest cover is very minimal compared to that which we require."

But the ban is still in effect for indigenous forests. The lifted portion of the ban applies to trees in plantation forests, which should be felled when the trees reach rotation age, Makanji says.

"We cannot talk about the issue of there being environmental consequences because these are plantation forests usually established for commercial purposes," says Makanji. "We have a community that is also engaged in tree planting within these gazetted government forests. So to me, there shouldn't be any environmental impact."

Furthermore, it's far from clear that the moratorium substantially reduced illegal logging. In a 2004 study, Makanji and Haruyuki Mochida of the University of Tsukuba found that a previous ban did not prevent illegal logging in the Kakamega forest. "As wood shortage bites, the price of sawn timber has risen hence creating a major incentive for illegal extraction," explained the authors. "In the year of the initial ban, 1999, the number of arrests was highest. In the following year, the numbers were still high."

While lifting the ban on commercial logging marks a positive step in liberalizing Kenya's forestry industry, the reality of corruption in the KFS remains. "Following the lifting of the moratorium the other day, what we now need to ensure is the proper management of forests," Gerald Ngatia, the national secretary of the National Community Forest Association, told Semafor. "Every forest station should have good forest management plans whereby if you are cutting a hundred, you should be able to restore the same hundred."

By bringing property rights to the forest, Kenya could ensure that its trees are both conserved and used depending on the utility they bring to Kenyans, as determined by price signals. A 2000 paper on forest conservation in Kenya's Mt. Elgon National Park, written by Esther Mwangie of Indiana University and Paul Ongugo and Jane Njuguna of the Kenya Forest Research Institute, found that the "institutional flexibility" of "according claimant rights to local communities" can "create incentives that encourage communities to take long term benefits and short term costs into account when making decisions."

Or as economists Terry L. Anderson and Laura E. Huggins put in their 2003 article "The Property Rights Path to Sustainable Development," with property rights "economic growth is not the antithesis of sustainable development; it is the essence of it."

*CORRECTION: This sentence has been updated to reflect the correct data source.