How resolute are efforts to save EAC forest cover?

Concerned about the low forest cover in the region, a member of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) is set to introduce a Private Member’s Bill that will curtail encroachment on forests in a bid to mitigate biting effects of climate change.
A section of Nyungwe Forest. A regional Bill seeks to harmonise management of forests. (Timothy Kisambira)
A section of Nyungwe Forest. A regional Bill seeks to harmonise management of forests. (Timothy Kisambira)

Concerned about the low forest cover in the region, a member of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) is set to introduce a Private Member’s Bill that will curtail encroachment on forests in a bid to mitigate biting effects of climate change.

Christophe Bazivamo was granted leave in January to introduce a Bill entitled “The East African Community Forest Management and Protection Bill.”

His inspiration is largely because forests “play a big role, especially when it comes to climate change impact mitigation.”

“In our region, forest depletion is on a high rate. More than 90 percent of energy in our region comes from firewood and on the other hand we don’t have enough forests and our population is increasing,” Bazivamo said.

“We have trans-boundary ecosystems. The Bill aims to cater for the problems we are facing, especially, to provide for the better management of trans-boundary ecosystems and be a guideline for forest management. It will set guidelines and requirements on how partner states harmonize laws.”

The legislator said that the law also aims to curtail discord in the EAC, since every country is now doing things differently, yet in some cases, national laws are outdated. Awareness on forest management and protection is another missing link that this bill will provide, he said.

If all goes according to plan, the Bill’s first reading could take place this month, followed by public hearings to collect views in July or August before it is passed early 2016.
 
Hurdles

The Bill could however face some hurdles after a bad precedent was set when a similar draft law, the East African Community Trans-boundary Ecosystems Bill 2010, passed in 2012, never materialized.

The Bill moved by Dr. George Francis Nangale (Tanzania), aimed to provide for a legal framework to streamline the management of trans-boundary eco-systems with a view to enhancing the quality of the environment and also ensure sustainable use of shared natural resources. 

Only Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda assented to it. Sunday Times is reliably informed that the Bill was never sent to Burundi for signing after Tanzania declined to sign it. Under Article 63 [Assent to Bills] of the EAC Treaty, a Bill lapses if a head of state withholds assent.

Article 63 also states that a Bill that has not received assent within three months from the date on which it was passed by the assembly shall be referred back to EALA.

A source said that “ceding complete sovereignty” was the reason Tanzania declined to sign it. Dodoma was categorical that despite ceding sovereignty, a partner state must still have a say in certain matters, especially resources, within its jurisdiction.

At some point, in 2011, debate was suspended. While in Kigali, in September 2011, the EAC Council of Minister requested for more time to consult.  The adjournment was further stayed in November 2011 during a subsequent meeting in Bujumbura.

Among the concerns of the Council was need to clarify the mandate of an envisaged Commission for the management of trans-boundary ecosystems in relation to existing institutions. The Council also felt there was an imminent conflict on matters of land seeing that such matters remain a preserve of partner states as per the Common Market Protocol.

Important resource

Forests are direct providers of shelter and food for people and livestock; and of water, medicinal plants, building materials and fuel.

They regulate the environment indirectly by slowing soil erosion, help to regulate the climate and protect coastlines, help regulate the often devastating impact of storms and floods, and provide shelter, jobs and security for forest-dependent populations.

“Yet despite all of these priceless ecological, economic, social and health benefits, we are destroying the very forests we need to survive,” says the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

To guarantee a practical way of jointly protecting EAC forests and biodiversity, Dr Rose Mukankomeje, the Director General of Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA), says partner states need to assent to the first Bill.

“So far, I am not aware of the progress. I am aware that Volcano National Park has a joint management (Rwanda, DRC and Uganda) with a secretariat based here in Kigali. This is a good example of co-management for a common good,” she said.

Mukankomeje stressed that “it would be good to harmonize national forestry laws because if we have opened our borders [under common market], it is very important that we apply the same regulations to our natural resources, including forests.”

It is important to manage forest resources jointly, she says, because the environment has no borders. “If we degrade here, the negative impact affects neighbours too. Forests have a big impact on climate variability and climate change. They remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The harmonization of their management has a big impact on the whole region.”

Asked about the possibility of another Bill flopping, Bazivamo remains confident.

“I think every wise person would fast track this. It comes from a lot of consultation and we plan to have further consultations with all concerned agencies. If there are concerns, we wish to have them brought forward during these consultations instead of having the bill, later, blocked.”
 
Dire situation

According to Bazivamo, forest cover in the EAC remains low with Burundi’s forest cover (of entire national land area) at 6.6 per cent as per data from 2012. Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda are at 6.1, 18.4, 36.8 and 14.1 per cent, respectively. Internationally recommended coverage is a minimum of 17 per cent.

Rwanda’s target is 30 per cent, by 2020. Kenya targets 15 percent which is “below average” and EALA, Bazivamo says, wants to mobilize every partner state to reach the international target.

“No country should aim below the international target, as a minimum. This is to be discussed because more consultations will be done before the bill comes to the house.”

Bazivamo added: “When it comes to Tanzania, we have seen that the average annual rate of decrease of forest area is 400, 000 hectares in the last 10 years. It is said that in 50 years to come, if nothing is done, there will be no more forest cover in Tanzania.”

“The same problem is observed in Kenya, where if people don’t take adequate measures, many areas can simply turn into desert. In the bill, we say that if you plan to cut trees, plan also to plant more.”

The Bill also calls for regional collaboration in statistics gathering and use.  A regional body, to be formed will help in capacity building as far as statistics generation is concerned.

“When talking about management, it is important to have enough and accurate statistics to help you plan better,” Bazivamo said.

UNEP says that “tracking long term trends in forest cover involves the compilation and analysis of large quantities of data that are not always consistent or comparable and the task is further complicated by different definitions of what constitutes ‘forest.’

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), says that “to measure the socioeconomic benefits from forests, data collection must focus on people, not only trees.”

According to the 2014 edition of the State of the World’s Forests report, with the exception of formal employment figures, forestry administrations have little information on how many people benefit from forests.

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