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December 06, 2007

Eucalyptus wood lots in Kenya not as lucrative as hoped

Expectations were high as Peter Wamiti, 45, led his workers in planting eucalyptus trees on his newly acquired five-acre farm in Kenya's Kajiado District. He hoped the trees would soon turn him into a millionaire.

He expected the Kenya Power and Lighting Company to buy his trees upon maturity. He had had been informed that the power company was importing the logs due to a shortage in the country.

That was two years ago. Today Wamiti’s optimism has waned after his precious trees failed to register quick growth as he had anticipated. The trees appeared weak and had no semblance of the giant logs that support power lines.

His neighbours, on the other hand, are accusing his trees of drying up their boreholes, saying they suck a lot of underground water. In short, Mr Wamiti has no peace of mind today and he is wondering if the investment was worth it.

He is not alone in this dilemma. Many other enterprising Kenyans, who had heard about the fast-maturing eucalyptus camaldulensis species, had moved with enthusiasm to make money in the reportedly lucrative tree farming. Today, plantations of the trees dot parts of Isinya, Ngong’, Namanga and the Central divisions.

Most of these people were lured by stories of how the tree would mature in seven years to produce electricity poles and they plunged into eucalyptus farming without consulting experts. Had they gone for advice from the forest department, they would have been told that arid parts of the district, which receive less than 900mm of rainfall annually, cannot support the growth of the trees to produce electricity poles. They would also have been informed of other threats, among them the blue gum chalcid (BGC), a pest which attacks mostly seedlings and trees under five years old.

A forest officer in the district, Mr Jackson Kimeu, says that apart from inadequate rainfall, some parts of the district have acidic soils and are highly infested with termites, a situation which does not augur well for the eucalyptus plantations. For parts of Isinya Division, Kimeu says, the problem is mainly shallow soils and the trees usually encounter rock after a depth of only two feet and they dry up.

He says that the few plantations that are doing well are in parts of Isinya, Ngong’ and Namanga divisions where there are deep soils. “But even in these areas, it is still not possible to produce electricity poles as the type of eucalyptus grown is the dry land species, which is not capable of producing poles of that size.”

It is possible that the electricity poles story was part of marketing information by the forestry department for a high potential species known as eucalyptus grandis and not the dry land eucalyptus camaldulensis.

In a period of five years since they planted the trees, many farmers have realised all they are likely to produce are rafters usually used by construction workers to support buildings under construction.

Eucalyptus farming involves a huge investment without which the activity cannot be profitable. A seedling of the eucalyptus camaldulensise seedling, for example, costs Sh15 (US25 cents) and after replanting, requires watering until its roots are long enough to access underground water.

“Most of those with big eucalyptus plantations have drilled boreholes on their land, which they use to irrigate their trees”, the forest officer said. “Their trees are noticeably healthier and bigger than those which are not watered.”

None can attest to the eucalyptus trees water requirements better than Mr Titus Chemase, the production manager at the Kaputiei farm in Isinya, which is probably the biggest eucalyptus plantation in the district. Most of the trees at the farm are unhealthy but those near a horticultural greenhouse are big and healthy.

Coincidentally, the horticultural plants, mainly tomatoes, which are at the edge of the green house and are closest to the eucalyptus trees, are unhealthy. “We have come to a conclusion that these trees are obtaining nutrients and water meant for the plants in the green house,” Mr Chemase said. He, however, could not confirm if the recharge of the farm’s borehole has been affected by the eucalyptus plantation as no research into this has been done.

It is evident that the trees require a lot of water to thrive but the forest officer says they are not likely to have dried up any borehole. However, fears expressed by boreholes owners in areas adjacent to eucalyptus plantations that they could be affecting water yields and recharge rate, have not fallen on deaf ears.

The Water Resources Management Authority (WRMA) in the district has selected some 15 boreholes located near eucalyptus plantations for monitoring, an exercise aimed at establishing if the trees were affecting the boreholes. A hydrologist with WRMA, Mr Ngila Munyao, says the findings would determine the next course of action.

Also interested in the issue is the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), which has already declared that any person wishing to venture into eucalyptus farming must now undertake an environmental impact assessment (EIA).

Nema representative in the district, Mr. Wilson Maritim, says that if the dry land eucalyptus is found to have a high water extractive capacity, establishment of more plantations will not be approved.

The forest department has no quarrels with restrictions from WRMA or Nema, but Mr. Kimeu is positive that the findings will only serve to clear the name of the eucalyptus species. He is of the opinion that lowering of the water table in most parts of the district is the result of accumulative impact of de-forestation.

The forest officer is of the opinion that land in low potential areas gained more in value when the dryland eucalyptus is planted on it. The trees, he said, use their roots to break underground rocks and this could eventually pave the way for more profitable forms of land use.

“While farmers in these areas may not produce trees which are big enough for power line posts, they will still fetch them money when sold for other uses such as wood fuel, construction and even medicinal application”, Kimeu says.

Daily Nation

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