Friday, May 20, 2005

Kenyans to Take FAO to World Court

Mesquite, Algorroba The IIchamus people of Baringo are planning to take the United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organisation to the International Court of Justice for introducing an injurious weed in the area and refusing to take responsibility.

Although the National Environmental Management Authority last week declared the weed - Prosopis juliflora else where known as the Devil Tree - dangerous and recommended its eradication, the Community Museums of Kenya accuse the Authority of glossing over the problem and failing to put the blame where it belongs.

The Museums had on behalf of the Ilchamus complained to Nema's Public Complaints Committee about the proliferation of the weed and wanted specific and practical actions taken against the FAO for having introduced the plant into the country and consequently committing a 'biological genocide.'

Mr Eustace Gitonga, the Museums director says they did not see why Nema had to drag some small government institutions in the matter - Kenya Forestry Research Institute and the Forestry Department - while the complaint was against FAO.

"The plaint addressed by Nema was fundamentally flawed as we did not complain against Kefri or the Forestry Department - the complaint was against FAO," says Gitonga.

Last week the Public Complaints Committee said the two government agencies should take responsibility for eradicating the weed. But Gitonga says the two do not have the capacity to carry out such an undertaking that has proved herculean even for developed countries such as Australia and the US. "FAO should thereby take responsibility and rectify the problem."

But Ms Pauline Matu-Mureithi for the complaints committee says her group has no jurisdiction over FAO and that the UN agency enjoys diplomatic immunity in its host countries. The committee had therefore concerned itself with the other parties involved in the introduction of the weed in the Baringo basin.

She however said the committee was willing to furnish Mr Gitonga with a copy of their recommendations and advise him on how to indict FAO in the International Court of Justice.

A biologist Mr Issa Ramadhan, says that FAO is responsible for 'introducing food insecurity instead of upholding their mandate which is to facilitate food security.' He said that the Ilchamus community wanted the weed mechanically removed and replaced by indigenous trees. "Mere removal is not enough."

He added that the only significant good in the complaints committee's report was the recommendation that the weed be declared a noxious plant. This could help curb its growth and consequently deter its proliferation.

FAO in an earlier letter to the Community Museums says although the weed was introduced in Baringo through a joint programme between them and the Government of Kenya it was implemented by the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources and the Forestry Department.

The Devil Tree, all agree, was introduced as a force for good. But the tree has taken to Kenya's soil with such relentless enthusiasm that it threatens the livelihood of thousands.

It was imported to Africa in the late 1970s and early 1980s to rural areas where the tree trunks were used to check soil erosion and for firewood.

But over time - as with so many other introduced species - a lack of natural competition has allowed the Devil Tree to thrive. It had a reputation as a tree which could grow anywhere - that was part of its appeal as a fuel wood in the first place. But the tree will grow up through the floors of their huts. Its canopy has taken over ground cover, making it hard for other plants to compete.

But it is the thorns, which grow along tendrils to three or four inches in length, which make life nearly impossible for anyone who has to live in an infested area. Injuries from the thorns are far worse than the injuries that a normal thorn would cause because of their size and the wound's tendency to become infected more easily.

Prosopis juliflora has shown itself to be an aggressive pioneer when transplanted from its home environment. It can withstand high temperatures, shortage of water and saline soils; it is also a monoculture: it roots out moisture, grows quickly to 6m tall and reaches out its branches to join neighbouring prosopis trees, forming a canopy that denies endemic species beneath the water and light necessary for their survival.

The invasiveness of the species has been aggravated in by extensive grazing. Prosopis is spread by livestock who eat its pods and distribute them undigested in their faeces as they roam.

Consistent with its selfish character, prosopis does not share its nutrients with the animals that eat its pods, nor are its leaves edible. But the plant profits from the softening process that occurs in the animals' gut for its own eventual germination.

Natural forests of prosopis are treasured in its native South America. On the basis of its environment-enriching properties, prosopis has been introduced to arid climates from South Africa and Australia, to India and the US.

Its 10ft roots suck minerals from the earth and fertilise the soil as the inedible leaves decay on the surface. The deep roots also reduce salinity in the soil by decreasing the ground-water table level and the tree serves both as a shelter for humans and animals.

But as in Africa, the Australians have begun to find the Devil Tree an unwelcome guest that is almost impossible to get rid of. It has colonised more than 800,000 hectares of arable land in northern Australia and the authorities are racking their brains to try to keep it under control.

Various chemical solutions have been tried without success, and at present it is only the use of controlled burning that is inhibiting its spread.

It is the same story in the US, where infestations in New Mexico have reduced the carrying capacity of arable land by up to 75 per cent.

A recent study concluded that prosopis infestations directly cost the US agricultural sector about $300m, with consequent losses to economic activity amounting to three times that amount.

In Ethiopia where the problem is more intense the government working with other agencies is working to turn the invasive plant into profit. One solution with commercial potential is to market the wood internationally as high-quality flooring.

One company, backed by the Ethiopian government, is negotiating to build log-processing plants in the Afar region twinned with a final product-processing plant in Addis Ababa. The end product would then be shipped from Djibouti to the US, Europe and the Middle East.

But the commercialisation of prosopis opens up a conflict of interest between settlers and pastoralists: between those who want to use prosopis and those whose very lives are seriously affected. "Pastoralists want to see the plant eliminated. They don't want to hear about any negotiations with prosopis," says Dr Taffese Mesfin, pastoral programme adviser for Farm Africa.


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