Planting different trees has great value to ecosystem

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Deforestation affects not only the forest cover of Kenya and in the long-term the water conservation. The biodiversity in our forests and in the semi-arid areas, that means, the great varieties of different trees, especially the indigenous ones, is in danger.

Some weeks ago, a farmer asked us: “Why should I plant trees in my one-acre piece of land, is it not a waste of space?” What would be you answer to this farmer?

Plants and especially trees form a larger part of the ecosystem in which we both co-exist. Trees are very important; they provide both, direct benefits, which can be seen, and indirect benefits which are hard to quantify, for instance the beauty of trees in a landscape. The quantifiable benefits include medicinal values, soil erosion control, economic gains (timber and firewood) and nutritional value in terms of food and fruits.

Once the latter two main needs (economic and nutritional) are satisfied, farmers will maintain trees for other reasons: The aesthetic value of trees (beauty) becomes appreciated and realistic to them. For example, trees provide beautiful scenery that is very attractive to the eyes.

Why do farmers hesitate to plant trees, which provide fodder for cattle, goat, sheep and camels?

Many farmers do not know the value of trees and shrubs for fodder. Moreover, planting them needs some knowledge:

Different fodder trees are suitable for different animals. The amount of fodder that can be fed to each type of animal is also different. We must give priority to these fodder plants when planting trees on the farm.

Farmers fear the trees may take up space meant for food crops.

There are technologies which allow a farmer to mix the two in such a way that crops benefit from the fodder trees and vice versa. We can get full benefits of trees in terms of fruits, shade and so on if we know how to manage them.

Can we then say that it all boils down to lack of knowledge?

To some extent yes. The benefits, services and products that trees offer differ from one region to another and the tree of choice depends on the acuteness of the problem. In high potential areas where all land is under crop production, fodder trees may be more important. In dry areas, shade and other ecological considerations could be more paramount than fodder because there is more land not being utilized for farming and the livestock can graze or browse there.

Devastating charcoal production

Unfortunately, 70% of the charcoal produced in Kenya comes from ecologically sensitive dry (semi-arid) areas.

It used to be a problem of Ukambani or Machakos and Kitui areas; but now it has spread to other areas like Baringo and Maasailand. Bagfuls of charcoal stacked by the roadsides are a clear sign of massive charcoal production in these areas. Charcoal making is one of the most destructive activities in our ecosystems.

We should stop it and search for alternative income generating ways. It aggravates soil degradation,  destroys grazing land - and affects the beauty of landscapes.

Can somebody with an empty stomach appreciate a tree with flowers?

A hungry person will wake up and cut down a tree to make charcoal and sell to buy food. Such tree may have been there since the time of his grandparents. As mentioned above, the aesthetic values are non-quantifiable in monetary terms. But we have to see it in a wider context: For instance, during the flowering season, flowers attract useful insects (such as bees) and birds which suck the nectar and also give out a pleasant scent from them. This is something that we take for granted, in many cases because it is difficult to put a monetary value to it.

The diversity of trees is in danger

How does the cutting down of trees affect the ecosystem?

Yes, it affects biodiversity, another crucial issue to be dealt with while considering the indirect benefits of trees. I appreciate the efforts being put in afforestation, but much of these are concentrated on one or two species of fast-growing trees (Eucalyptus, Grevillea). Deforestation affects all species of trees and more so the indigenous ones; in fact, some of them are on the verge of extinction while others have completely disappeared. The diversity of trees is in danger.

Trees are good indicators of human activities. Once you lose a tree, it’s gone forever. The lost tree may be seen as a single tree but in terms of biodiversity conservation, it houses birds, insects, tree frogs and other living creatures. Therefore, cutting down one tree affects many other living creatures that depend on that tree.

Mixing of trees does not only attract animal-to-plant biodiversity but also plant-to-plant biodiversity. Plants live in association with others. The smaller trees or plants live comfortable underneath the big trees which may grow to a height of 40 m or so. This means that farmers need knowledge about trees, especially the need to mix specific ones when planting. That way, we can increase the biodiversity of trees – and hence get more income and realize other added benefits to the environment. We need to become much more aware about the long-term effects of cutting down trees only to meet short-term needs.

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