Fri. Dec 2nd, 2022

The Kenyan government has halted the transport and export of Kilifi baobabs to Georgia and ordered an investigation into how a foreign contractor obtained permission to transport the ancient trees out of the country.

Kenyan President William Ruto has ordered the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to investigate whether Georgy Gvasaliya had the proper permit to export the trees from Kenya under the Nagoya Protocol, an international agreement governing the conditions for the export of genetic resources, which is incorporated into Kenyan law.

The protocol requires communities to provide prior informed consent for any exports and an agreement between the recipient, the government and the community, on how the benefits should be shared.

The move follows a Guardian report last month about growing concern over the uprooting and transportation of trees from the Kilifi region, on Kenya’s coast, as the country tries to restore lost forest cover. Kilifi has experienced the third highest rate of tree loss in Kenya in the last two decades.

Baobabs can live for thousands of years, are resistant to drought and provide habitats for numerous species. They produce fruit that contains high levels of vitamin C, antioxidants, calcium, potassium and fiber, and the powder found in the fruit is used in smoothies and porridges. The bark has medicinal properties, and the oil from the seeds is used in cosmetic products.

Outrage over tree exports and debate among Kenyans about the need to protect the country’s environment and resources have caught the attention of the president, who this week intervened in the export of eight baobabs.

Ruto chirped: “There must be proper authorization and a fair benefit sharing formula for Kenyans. Furthermore, the exercise must be in line with the government’s program to plant 15 billion trees in the next 10 years.”

Shortly after the publication of the tweet, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Forestry issued a notification statement who said the environmental impact assessment permit issued to Gvasaliya in October, which allowed the trees to be uprooted and exported, was granted “irregularly”.

The ministry immediately halted the transport, saying the trees could not be taken out of the country until their export agreements were “regularized”. It said action would be taken against any government official found to have failed to follow proper procedures when processing the permit, amid public calls for accountability.

Sofia Rajab, a human rights lawyer, said: “We need to see accountability for the failures in the system that allowed this to happen.”

An uprooted baobab tree with white letters written '5' on the trunk
A baobab tree marked for export after it was uprooted, but later abandoned, in the Kilifi region. Photo: Edwin Ndeke/The Guardian

The Guardian has learned that eight trees were exported to Shekvetili Dendrological Park, owned by former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who has been involved in other tree-cutting activities along the Georgian coast.

Environmental groups welcomed the government’s announcement.

“This sent a clear message to the world that the exploitation of Kenya’s biodiversity can only happen if Kenyans are significant beneficiaries,” said Gus Le Breton, president of the African Baobab Alliance. “It has major global implications in terms of reiterating the importance of the Nagoya Protocol for regulating trade and biodiversity.”