Newswire: Kenyan officials squirm in the spotlight over ‘irregular’ export of ancient trees

Baobab Tree

 


Dec. 5, 2022 (GIN) – Stories abound of the majestic baobab tree – landmarks across Africa where they stand tall, adapted to arid landscapes, the basis of myths, the home of vultures and bees, and the giver of fruits that can feed families during drought.
 
Baobab, or ‘mbuyu’ in Kiswahili, is a gigantic fibrous leafy tree, common in the open semi-arid areas of eastern and coastal counties of Kenya  and in 32 African countries. It is not uncommon to find a 5,000 year old tree, 100 feet tall, 40 feet in diameter – a prehistoric species which predates both mankind and the splitting of the continents over 200 million years
Fruit produced by the baobab contains high levels of vitamin C, antioxidants, calcium, potassium and fiber. The bark has medicinal properties, and oil from the seeds is used in beauty products.
 
But their benefits were outweighed by the monies being offered to poor landowners for the trees. “Everybody was willing to sell,” Johna Kahindi, a real estate broker from the area told a reporter. “Many people in our community are very poor, so even $800 would be seen as a lot of money.”
 
Kenyan officials have now halted the export of baobabs to the former Russian republic of Georgia and ordered an investigation into how a foreign contractor received permission to transport the ancient trees out of the country.
 
Kenya’s president, William Ruto, ordered the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to investigate whether Georgy Gvasaliya, founder of Ariba Seaweed Co. had the proper license to take the trees out of Kenya under the Nagoya protocol, an international agreement that governs the export of genetic resources, which has been incorporated into Kenyan law.
 
Meanwhile, researchers, scientists and environmentalists are denouncing Ariba Seaweed Int’l for uprooting the trees and the environmental agency and the Kenya Forest Service for allowing the decimation of the iconic species.
 
Under a media spotlight, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry claimed that the environmental impact assessment license allowing the trees to be uprooted and exported was given “irregularly”.
 
However a local official disagreed, saying there was little they could do to halt the sales because the baobabs were on privately owned land. “The issue here is about ownership rights. This is a tree belonging to an individual. It’s not protected; it’s not on government land,” the local official said.
 
Kavaka Watai Mukonyi, former head of bioprospecting at the Kenya Wildlife Service, disagreed. “If there are no agreements, it does not matter whether [the land was privately owned] or not – that is an illegality.”
 
In a further investigation by the Guardian UK, it was learned that the cut baobab trees were being exported to Shekvetili Dendrological Park, owned by former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who has been involved in other tree-uprooting activities along the Georgian coast.
 
According to Gvasalia, most of his customers are ambitious botanical gardens. In his home country Georgia, an 11-million-dollar greenhouse was to be built to exactly simulate the weather conditions and humidity of Kilifi area in Kenya.
 
Arabian countries, said Gavasia, are the most eager to get an original African Baobab as an exotic highlight in their desert surroundings.
 
Gus Le Breton, chair of the African Baobab Alliance, said: “It’s biopiracy. I cannot see any justification for taking a reproductive tree from some part of the world and moving it to another. “
 
A petition has been posted on Change.org called “Please Save our Baobab Trees from wanton Destruction.”
 

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