Farmers have gone bust over it, KPLC needs it for electricity poles, the Green Belt Movement is fighting against it being planted in the Mau forest, even as the nation cries out for tree replanting: the trouble with the Eucalyptus is that it guzzles water, as many Kenyans have now learnt to their cost.
Kaputiei farm in Isinya Kajiado district was two years ago the biggest eucalyptus plantation in the district. Today, the farm is being divided into plots, to be sold to property developers. The farm failed, in what has become a common story among Kenya's more entrepreneurial farmers – a promising crop in the wrong conditions, making for a money spinner turned bad.
For the eucalyptus farm, the flaw in the dream was the tree's water guzzling habit. Without adequate water, the farm's seedlings turned into trees that were stunted, bent and thin, and couldn't be used to make electric poles, which was the market where the money was. “The thin ones were cut and sold, to be used as rafters” says a plot agent based in Kaputiei.
The eucalyptus buzz in the habitually arid Kajiado began in Kitengela in 2005 after a rash of publicity and excitement about the fortunes to be made by selling poles to Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC). The trees were expected to mature in seven years. But the species planted were the fast maturing eucalyptus camaldulensis, which according to scientists, can’t succeed in arid environments.
Farmers expected KPLC to buy a pole at not less than Sh10, 000, while the initial investment was Sh15 per seedling. In fact, today, farmers who sell poles to companies contracted by KPLC to buy on its behalf get Sh3000 per pole, according to Wambugu Wamahiu an environmentalist with Africa Harvest.
But, worse than that, Kitengela never had enough water for the trees to mature, said the district’s forestry official Jackson Kimeu. “It takes an annual rainfall of 900mm to sustain consistent eucalyptus growth”. The farmers didn’t consult the forestry department for farming advice before planting the water guzzlers.
For Paul Wamiti, the water starved eucalyptuses are now turning his five acre Kitengela farm into a wasteland. And his neighbors blame the trees for their drying boreholes.
Kitengela with its loose soil and dry geological terrain is anyway not ideal for eucalyptus, which thrives in deep soils. Eucalyptus is also suited for “mid attitudes of between 900 to 1400 meters above sea level” said Dr Obala the tree specialist.
But even places like Namanga, on the Tanzanian border, Ngong, outside Nairobi, and Isinya in the Rift Valley, all with deeper soils are unsuitable for growing the tree – they none of them have a sufficient water supply, says the forestry service.
The best habitats for eucalyptus are the mountainous regions, in central and western Kenya, with annual rainfall of 900 to 1200mm, where the trees can indeed grow tall and thick. Sufficient rainfall reduces soil acidity, and prevents termites flourishing in the undergrowth.
Eucalyptus seedlings under five years are also prone to attack by the blue gum chalcid (BGC) bug. It stunts their growth by forming galls on stems of the young trees. The galls weaken the seedling and cause the leaves to wither. Organizations like Tree Biotech in Kenya are promoting the planting of cloned eucalyptus which are resistant to bugs. The first eucalyptus clones were introduced in Kenya in 1997 from South Africa.
With the right conditions, the cloned eucalyptus can mature in 8 years while the ordinary eucalyptus can take up to 12 years. Only then can the tree be harvested for electricity poles. The clone is also self pruning and “has various sub species suited for different ecological zones,” said Wamahiu.
In the meantime, the eucalyptus does remain a big deal in Kenya. Kenya’s eucalyptus plantations, according to the National Environmental Management Authority, account for 8.2 percent of Kenya’s tree plantations. The tree is the third most common plantation tree in Kenya, behind the Cypress, which accounts for 48.4 percent of plantations and Pine at 35.2 percent.
“There has been an increase in eucalyptus trees plantation” said Kimani of the Green Belt Movement, who cites a 60 per cent increase in just six years. Last year, however, the government banned new plantings of the tree. “In areas like Muranga North, Thika, farmers are uprooting eucalyptuses near river beds to conserve water,” said Kimani.
However, nearly a year since the ban by Environment Minister Michuki, eucalyptus planting continues in commercial farms like Kakuzi and regions like Nyeri, Kitale, Nyandarua and Nyeri. According to Dr Obala the ban was misunderstood by grass root administrators as a blanket ban, while it was only meant to be effected along riversides.
Indeed, “the ban by the ministers was without input of facts and views from relevant scientists”, claims Wamahiu.
Nonetheless, Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement has spoken out vigorously against eucalyptus being used to rehabilitate the depleted Mau Forest, with the tree’s daily water consumption is estimated at 150 liters. The next most thirsty tree in Kenya is the Acacia, which consumes around 120 liters daily.
But Africa Harvest is working with farmers to plant the cloned eucalyptus varieties in a redirected effort to get into the pole business. Their efforts are spurred by a report released by Energy Ministry that shows by 2012 consumer demand of electricity will have doubled from the current 100,000 per year. Their data shows Kenya yearly imports electricity poles worth Sh4 billion. At times, a pole can cost Sh21,000.
But the trick, clearly, for farmers keen to supply this lucrative market is to plant the right trees, and in the right place.
Written By James Karuga for African Laughter
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