How much is a forest worth?

Can you put a price on a rain forest? Well apparently you can according to research by the Kenya Forest Research Institute (KEFRI) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

The UNEP sponsored project has been looking at Kenya’s Mau Forest, the larget forest in the country (and one of the largest in East Africa) and how it benefits the economy. The forest has an ability to provide water and generate rain which is worth vast sums of money.

The economic benefit of the forest has been placed at $1.3 billion per year, a figure which will put into conservation in the spot light and give governments great incentives to protect such natural assets. Unfortunately the Mau Forest has been subject of fierce logging and clearance operations over the last few decades which has reduced the forest by at least 40% in size.

Lake Nakuru National Park

Lake Nakuru National Park

Twelve rivers originate in the forest, located in the rift valley. These rivers flow across Kenya providing water and hydro-electricity which meets half of Kenya’s electricity demand. Part of the Sondu River flows through a Japanese-funded  hydro-electric power station generating up 6% of Kenya’s electrical supply. Conservation of the forest is vital for the power station to continue. It is calculated that the forest is worth $131.6m to the electricity sector.

Tea plantations also benefit greatly from the Mau Forest.  Tea is one of Kenya’s key exports and the study calculates the forest contributes $163m a year to tea industries. Without trees there is no rain and during dry spells the tea plants dry up at the cost of peoples livelihoods.

Lesser and Greater Flamingos at Lake Nakuru

Lesser and Greater Flamingos at Lake Nakuru

Down stream the forest lies Lake Nakuru, one of six lakes fed by the forest. Lake Nakuru is famous for it large population of stunning pink flamingos. Many people are attracted to Kenya for such sights making tourism big business within the country. It is not only the flamingos which attract tourists. People come to see a whole raft of animals including zebras, warthogs, baboons and even black and white rhinos. The benefit to tourism is placed at $65 million.

The forest also holds an estimated $89 million worth of benefit in storing carbon and helps control soil erosion to the  value of $98 million.

Speaking to the BBC Jacob Mwanduka, of Friends of the Mau Forest Watershed (FOMAWA), said the forest “is leading the ecosystem of the country, supporting a third of the country’s population.”

“Without water, there is no life. And without forests, there is no water.

“It’s as simple as that. It’s painful that we are losing our forest, so we need to act now.”

UNEP’s executive secretary, Achim Steiner, told the BBC “If we destroy the forest we compromise natures ability to provide us with regular water suplies. These are very simple but very powerful and vital services nature provides for us. Without them we either cannot survive or have to spend a lot of money in finding alternatives”. Mr Steiner hopes that by having hard numbers for the value of nature people will change the way they think about it.

The main cause of the destruction of the forest is it 20,000 families. Some live a sustainable hunter-gatherer lifestyle while others have cleared parts of the forest to make room for settlements. Aware of the pressures it faces, the Kenyan government is committed to conservation of the forest and it has controversial plans to relocate the inhabitants of the forest.

This raises many difficult questions such as where will the people go and how will they survive in their new locations? How should they be compensated? And what about the many illegal settlers who have moved there in recent years.

A fine balance needs to be sought between the needs of the natural world and its long-term ability to support the economy against the needs of a developing country and its inhabitants who are struggling to survive.

Historically, in similar predicaments, nature has lost out. However there is currently a Conference on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan which hopes to address many issues around biodiversity such as why governements fail to meet their own targets

Further reading:

BBC | Placing a value on Kenya’s largest forest

Wikipedia | Lake Nakuru

ACF | Kenya: Selfish Interests Threaten Mau Forest

Conference on Biological Diversity

Conference on Biological Diversity | Factsheet

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