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A street view of the now famed fig tree in Nairobi that is now under presidential protection and conservation. Photo: Dominic Kirui

For roads, Kenya sacrifices trees

Widespread uproar has pushed the Kenyan government to save an iconic fig tree in Nairobi, but many others have been felled to make way for a new road.
Widespread uproar has pushed the Kenyan government to save an iconic fig tree in Nairobi, but many others have been felled to make way for a new road.

The sun is blazing hot in Nairobi’s Westlands area and as matatu (public service vehicles) drivers and conductors take a break, they shelter from the heat under a huge, iconic fig tree next to the bus station.

They are taking advantage of the shade provided by this tree for a few more days before it is moved. The Kenya National Highways Authority (KeNHA) had said that it would move the tree and plant it elsewhere. But on November 11, the Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) director-general, Major General Mohammed Badi issued a presidential declaration of conservation of the iconic fig tree

Eliud Injigwa has been a bus conductor on the Westlands route for the past 21 years, and the initial news that the tree would be moved by the government were not so good for him.

“You know, some of these trees are so special to our beliefs, and cutting or uprooting them might cause a bad thing. This is also where we rest under the shade during such sunny afternoons. No one will allow you to take shade in his shop, so nature is what saves us without asking for payment,” he says.

Eliud Injigwa, a matatu conductor plying the Westlands route takes a break as he enjoys the shade of the famed fig tree in Westlands, Nairobi. Photo: Dominic Kirui

But after the NMS announcement, Injigwa is relieved that he will continue to enjoy the shade provided by the now famed fig tree. 

“That tree will continue to live until it dies on its own. It will be the right history to once say that the government at least protected it even though it felled thousands of others for a road,” he says. 

The Kenyan government, in its bid to construct a 27.1km expressway from Nairobi’s ABC Place building, west of the city to the Jomo Kenyatta International airport to the east, has seen it fell trees along Waiyaki Way, Uhuru Highway, and Mombasa Road where the road is to be constructed.

Like many governments around the world, Kenya is faced with the hard task of balancing development projects and environmental conservation as its cities grow, and people move into them, often driven from the rural areas by several reasons including climate change effects.

As the journey towards realizing the United Nations Development Goals (SDGs) gathers momentum, governments are torn between economic development of infrastructure and industries and the conservation of the environment. As such, they have come into sharp criticism by activists mostly who say that this should not be at the expense of the environment and an acceleration of climate change

A signpost instructing motorists to slow down as tree felling was going on at Waiyaki Way in Nairobi. Photo: Dominic Kirui

To balance the two, Dr Mugo Mware, the Dean at the School of Environmental Studies at Karatina University in central Kenya says that it is important to think about sustainable development while doing this. “We have to carry out an environmental impact assessment before proceeding with any project so that we are able to see an interplay between the environment, the technological, and socio-economic development. Where the three of them intersect, that is where we have sustainable development,” Dr Mware says. 

When the country signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, the country committed to reducing carbon emissions by 30% by the year 2030. In its long-term goals, it said that it planned to achieve much of these goals through mitigation efforts in the forestry sector, which is expected to contribute about half of the emissions reductions that it needed to achieve this goal.

According to Global Forest Watch, Kenya lost 45.8kha of humid primary forest, making up 14% of its total tree cover loss between 2002 and 2019. The total area of humid primary forest in Kenya decreased by 7.1% in this time period. 

Patricia Kombo, a climate activist and founder of PaTree Initiative, an organization that is fighting to ensure more green spaces by planting trees in the country and protecting those that exist, says that the tree felling is wrong.

“We love infrastructural development in our country but it should not be at the expense of our ecological infrastructure. The felling of trees to pave way for an expressway is wrong, for a tree equals to oxygen and biodiversity”, she says.

Dr Benson Mburu, an environmental science lecturer at the Kenyatta University in Nairobi echoes Kombo’s sentiments, saying that the government should have done a thorough social and environmental impact assessment.

“Once an assessment is done, the mitigation measures in the report are the ones that will advise on what role the trees played in the environment, to ensure that the construction of the road continues,” Mburu says.

A consortium of climate activists under the umbrella organization called Daima Greenspaces tried to stop the felling of trees along the roads by filing a petition at the National Environment Tribunal but did not get a written stop order to KeNHA, which they needed in order to stop the felling of trees. 

This resulted in the announcement by the NMS to preserve the tree and plant others along the road. 

A group of climate activists displays placards as they protest the felling of trees in Nairobi to pave the way for the construction of an expressway. Photo: Dominic Kirui

Phyllis Wamaitha, an environmental advocate based in Nairobi says that we are not supposed to look at a concrete jungle in a city that was once covered with trees. 

“The question is why are we commencing a project that is currently being challenged in court? Why are we having all these disadvantages as a result of a road such as cutting down a tree that is seventy years?” Wamaitha wonders. 

Injigwa says that still, that is a little too late. “I don’t believe the government would have moved it. They only wanted to fool us after felling all the other trees on Waiyaki Way then pretending to be so concerned about the environment now because of one tree. All the others mattered as well,” he concludes.