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This generation risks being the one that destroyed Kenya’s trees

Trees and development don’t go together? Of course they do. As I discussed here last week, sustained development does not take place at the expense of the environment.

Ask Haiti, which in a frenzy of slashing forests for wood fuel, reduced forest cover from more than 60 per cent to under 2 per cent in a few decades. Haiti is one of the world’s poorest nations, with 80 per cent of its population living below the poverty line. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

On the other side of the equation, look at Singapore, a city-state that has seen more advancement than virtually any other in the past generation. It has some of the world’s most sophisticated buildings and infrastructure, yet it is also famous as a ‘garden city,’ because its leaders had the good sense to protect its natural heritage whilst unleashing the dogs of development.

Singapore, an island nation barely larger than greater Mombasa in area, has more than two million trees on it. If you visit, you will be startled by the greenery, natural plant species and huge variety of bird types. These exist alongside soaring skyscrapers and massive highways. Singapore, please note, is one of the world’s richest societies. Its leaders foresaw the need to preserve the natural balance, and therefore the habitability, of a crowded island as development gathered pace.

Even as we build our nation, it is perfectly possible to do this properly with respect to nature. First, it is perfectly possible to build around many trees, not over their graves. Look at some of the world’s finest cities, and you will see the truth of this statement. Paved modern streets have huge trees growing out of sidewalks, providing shade and colour and character and birdsong.

Second, it is perfectly possible to keep the overall stock of trees intact or growing. Some trees (fewer than you think) will need to be removed to make way for roads and housing. But all we need is an immutable rule that no tree must come down without at least one other growing in its place, within the same ecosystem.

Third, we must never allow people the freedom to chop trees down for short-term gain. We must be alert to the collective danger of reducing tree cover. We must educate the ignorant and punish the recalcitrant. To fill a few pockets at the expense of the many will be a grievous crime.

Fourth, we could go even further and offer tax incentives to developers who protect and grow trees, rather than razing them.

The people of Singapore were once poor. They, too, could have done what Haiti did and chopped down every tree just to get basic fuel. Or they could have done what Kenya is now doing and allowed developers to cut down trees with impunity to line their own pockets.

Instead, Singapore’s enlightened leaders passed strict laws protecting trees. They enforced these with vigour. They made sure alternative sources of fuel were affordable and available. They established protected parks and sanctuaries. They educated their people on the importance of trees.

Environmental protection cannot be left to private decision-making. It is a collective endeavour, requiring strong-willed leaders and clean enforcement mechanisms.

After writing last week’s column on this subject, I have been inundated with emails and tweets about the degree of degradation happening all over the country: not just Nairobi, but Kisumu, Nakuru, Eldoret and many others have already lost too many of their grand old trees.

We must wake up and bring public sanity to this private madness. You don’t have to love trees. You just have to love your grandchildren. Saving Kenya’s trees is an act of love for Kenyans of the future. Let us act in concert, otherwise this generation risks going down in history as the one that denuded a nation.

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