Lisa Libutu was going about her business at the Kenyan coastal county of Kilifi when a truck loaded with an uprooted giant baobab tree drove by on the Mombasa-Malindi Highway.
She was astonished at the sight of what is considered an everlasting tree uprooted. It had not happened before.
The baobab is known as Africa’s “Tree of Life”, adapting to arid landscapes, living for up to 5,000 years and with many useful properties for local communities.
They are landmarks where they stand for centuries.
Libutu was not the only person shocked by the uprooting of the baobab. Soon, it became the talk of villagers as more of uprooted gigantic trees were seen being ferried to Mombasa.
Villagers approached by buyers
Libutu later learned that villagers had been approached to sell their trees for $3,000, an offer they could not turn down, she told The EastAfrican.
It is not clear whether the uprooting of the iconic baobab trees in Kenya’s coastal county of Kilifi is a case of ignorance on the part of national agencies and the county government or it is bio piracy.
Researchers fear that Kenya risks losing the baobab species to foreign multinationals who will patent its products and the country will pay the price of negligence yet again after it lost crucial species that were patented and cannot now be uses for commercial purposes in the country.
Dr Amos Lewa, a Kenyan biomedical scientist with the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri), notes that Kenya lost the Prunus africana (the African cherry), endemic in the Rift Valley, which was harvested and sent to Europe and later patented.
Formulations from the Prunus africana are used to treat prostate gland inflammation.
Dr Lewa says Kenya also lost frangipani, a flowery tropical tree whose milk is potent for herpes zoster, and is useful in HIV management of dermatological disorders.
“We lost the patent of the Prunus africana and frangipani, and we can no longer use it commercially. Kenya has lost patents of the kiondo basket and now the baobab tree – whose leaves, bark and roots show febrifuge potential and other medicinal uses – is threatened. The fruit pulp is highly potent for nutrition in children as an alternative to breast milk. We shall lose it in patents too,” he said.
Fibrous leafy tree
The 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.
Local communities use baobab leaves, pulp and seeds as a source of food.
Baobab seed oil is used in cosmetic products and stem fibres are used in rope making, the fruit shells as fuelwood, the leaves as vegetables and livestock fodder and the powder is used in making jam and juice.
Libutu is the founder of Baossence, an organisation that works with local women and youth at the Kenyan coast to care for and trade in baobab-based products.
“I used to get about 100kgs of baobab seeds in a week from women groups in Kilifi but they suddenly stopped supplying. It turned out the trees they harvested from had been “sold” to a foreigner who intended to export them to Georgia, in the United States,” Libutu said.
Go-ahead to uproot trees
It turned out that in October, the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis), the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) and the county government of Kilifi had given the go-ahead to Ariba SeaWeed International to uproot the trees in Mtondia and Tezo for botanical purposes for two years. A Kenya Forest Service approval was granted on November 1.
Eight huge baobab trees had by then already been uprooted and stored for shipping to Shekvetili Dendrological Park Ltd in Ureki in Ozurgeti Municipality, Georgia, US.
KFS said it allowed the uprooting of the baobabs because the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) did not list them as an endangered species.
Libutu has now launched a petition dubbed “Please Save our Baobab Trees from Wanton Destruction”, which has attracted over 3,000 people including government officials who sought explanation from county officials.
The petition is an appeal to the Kenya government, the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Union for Conservation of Nature to immediately ban the “carnage” of baobab trees and to place them on the World List of Threatened Trees/Species.
The petition also seeks to have the baobab become a protected tree species in Kenya, included on the appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), a multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals from the threats of international trade.
Researchers, scientists and environmentalists have jumped on the petition and propelled it to the public for discourse. They are calling out the Ariba Seaweed International Ltd, which has been uprooting the trees in Tezo, Kilifi North, and condemning the environment management agency and the Kenya Forest Service for allowing the decimation of the iconic species.
Amisha Patel, the founder of O’bao, a baobab-based natural skincare brand in Kenya, called on the government to protect the trees.
“I would like to strongly condemn any uprooting and export of whole trees or live parts thereof. I strongly urge the Kenyan government to enforce, be vigilant and protect Kenyan resources,” said Patel.
she said uprooting the baobab tree deprives communities of future economic benefits and sets a dangerous precedent for other natural resources.
Nature Kenya coast conservation programme coordinator Francis Kagema alleged that the uprooting of the trees could be biopiracy as there were no consultations and there was no environment impact assessment.
“It is biopiracy because that is our biological resource. Someone is uprooting and taking it to another country. We do not know who allowed that and the process involved because there were no consultations,” he said.
Kenyan President William Ruto says the harvesting of the trees must conform to the existing regulations, including the Convention on Biodiversity and the Nagoya Protocol.
“I have instructed the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to look into the ongoing uprooting of baobab trees in Kilifi County to ensure that it sits within the Convention on Biodiversity and the Nagoya Protocol,” he tweeted.
“There must be adequate authorisation and an equitable benefit-sharing formula for Kenyans. Further, the exercise must be in line with the government’s agenda of planting 15 billion trees in the next 10 years,” he added.
The Nagoya Protocol, formally known as the Convention on Biological Diversity, came into force on October 12, 2014, and has been signed by over 50 countries.
Baobab is native to Africa and is typically found in sub-Saharan African countries. In Kenya, it grows in several counties including Kitui, Kilifi, Kwale, Taita Taveta, Makueni, Tharaka Nithi, and Lamu.
“Research shows that baobab trees, commonly called the iconic trees of life, grow in 32 countries in Africa and live for 5,000 years,” says Libutu.