Forests play a crucial role in international development, serving as an environmental necessity and an economic resource around the world. Yet despite their blatant importance to our planet, forests continue to be destroyed at an alarming rate, creating a cascade of negative effects that are too palpable to ignore. Worldwide, over 32 million acres of forests are cleared each year, an area equal to the size of Nicaragua, with Africa’s forests disappearing at a rate nearly three times the global average[1]. The strain on the environment from deforestation has been particularly devastating for the most vulnerable populations in the developing world, often more impoverished and reliant on local natural resources to meet their daily needs than those in developed countries.

The Issue

In Kenya, a country with 80% of its population living on small-scare farming, over two-thirds of its landmass in arid or semi-arid climate zones, and a population growing at a rate of over a million per year, forest cover has experienced a sharp decline in recent decades[2]. Illegal logging, charcoal production, forest encroachment, squatter settlement, fire, erosion, and unsustainable land use have been the primary sources of deforestation in Kenya, and the consequences have been drastic.[3] Streams, riverbeds, and watering holes have dried up, soil erosion has increased, hydrological patterns have been disrupted, crops have been destroyed, and wildlife populations have diminished.

Rural communities in Kenya dependent upon subsistence agriculture have little opportunity beyond farming, and many times can only meet their daily needs at the expense of the environment. Kenya’s burgeoning population is a stark contrast to its shrinking forests. Marginalized communities continue to cut down trees everyday for firewood and charcoal use, causing the forests cover to retreat further. In a study conducted among farmers living in Eastern Kenya, the reduction of forest cover had led to a variety of factors, with the most prominent indicators of increased vulnerability being decrease in crop yield, drying rivers, drying springs, increase in market prices, displacement or migration, and drought[4]. However despite these challenges, Kenya is attempting to curb deforestation and establish sustainable solutions to meet both the long-term needs of the environment and the immediate needs of the people.

Promising Solutions

While there is no single solution that simultaneous protects the environment and eradicates poverty, there are some many approaches to development that address development factors across the environmental, economic, and social spheres.  The key to the success of these interdisciplinary approaches is widespread buy-in and commitment to the policies across a diverse range of stakeholders. In Kenya, the national government, local community, and international sector all play integral roles in the country’s efforts to combat deforestation and promote rural development.

Engaging the local government

One of the most important players in environmental protection and economic development is a country’s national government. Africa’s long history of colonial rule and state-ruled land allocation has resulted in a large portion of forest reserves being degraded through misallocation and misuse. Like many others, Kenya’s government has struggled to balance the competing demands of population growth and forest conservation. During the rule of President Moi during the late 1980s and early 1990s, land was parceled out through political favoritism and forest areas were cleared to serve as settlements for the misplaced.  The Mau Forest in the Rift Valley is one such area, which was almost irreparably damaged after over 10,000 families were forced to resettle there. This area, once an important watershed for the country, “receives so little water now that it may well dry up completely within a decade or so.[5]” The misguided policies that caused so much environmental degradation in Kenya prove the significant influence the national government can have on the implementation of sustainable solutions to forest conservation and rural development.

Contrary to the bleak situation in the Mau Forest, Kenya’s Aberdare Forest is being protected and restored under national policy, demonstrating a promising governmental intervention to protect forest reserves while allowing local communities to not only survive, but raise their standard of living. Governmental agencies such as the Kenya Wildlife Service carried out an initiative to protect the Aberdare forest, combat human-wildlife conflict, and provide local jobs, through the construction of a 2,000 kilometer-long electric fence. The fence has provided a multitude of benefits, most notably a reduction of illegal logging and deforestation, increased crop yield through reduced wildlife conflict, and increased average income in the local community. This type of initiative involving Kenya’s local government agencies represents a holistic approach to environmental policy.

Engaging the local community

In order for policies to be implemented in a sustainable manner that benefits the environment and local economies, communities must be willing to support and participate in the efforts. Fostering a sense of ownership among those most directly impacted by deforestation is a key driver of success. In fact, a study on Kenyans’ willingness to pay for forest conservation produced interesting results, showing that those with lower education and income levels are willing to pay more for forest conservation than those with higher education and income levels. This is because “those with less income derive their utilities from the forest; hence they are more willing to conserve the forest” than those with higher incomes that are not as directly dependent on forest resources[6]. This indicates that efforts to educate, engage, and empower people at all levels of society generate a collective effort, which transfers the burden from the poor to a broader range of stakeholders.

One example of community engagement in Kenya relates back to the Aberdare electric fence initiative executed by the Kenya Wildlife Service. The government had to convince the communities that the electric fence would benefit them even though it would keep them out of the forest they are so dependent upon for daily resources. As the former Chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service stated, “The support of the forest-edge farming communities has been the secret of this project’s success.[7]” The local communities have taken ownership in this initiative and have taken on roles in monitoring and managing the fence, reporting illegal activities, planting indigenous trees inside the fence, and developing sustainable farming techniques to reduce resource consumption. Engaging participation from the local community ensures that benefits accrue to the most direct stakeholders and efforts to preserve the environment are sustained.

Engaging the international sector

While national governments and local communities are essential players in any development strategy, the role of the international sector cannot be overlooked. Multinationals, NGOs, and civil society organizations all contribute vastly to international development, both through market-based approaches and philanthropic initiatives. Kenya’s position as the leading East African economy and welcoming attitude towards foreigners has made it one of the foremost recipients of international aid in the region. Environmental conservation projects hosted by foreign companies and organizations are steadily increasing, and the focus on forest conservation is of particular importance in many of these efforts. An example of foreign public-private partners assisting in the conservation of Kenya’s forests is between multinational Allianz Insurance Group and US-based nonprofit organization, Wildlife Works, which focuses on reforestation efforts in Kenya. Allianz and Wildlife Works partnered to form a sustainable model that addresses environmental, economic, and social challenges. Allianz buys carbon credits from Wildlife Works’ tree-planting projects, and the nonprofit uses this money to pay the local Kenyans for their work in raising, planting, and protecting the trees[8].

One approach that has proven to be beneficial both to environmental protection and rural economic development is the United Nation’s Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD). This program assigns a value to a living tree that is greater than the value that would be attained if the tree were to be cut down, thus promoting protection and stewardship over exploitation. Developed countries contribute to a general fund, which is then distributed to support forest conservation and reforestation activities in the developing world[9]. Through these models of reciprocation for conservation, community members are able to earn an income by protecting and planting trees, rather than continuing to rely on, and add to, the degradation of Kenya’s forests.


In many parts of the world, rural development is directly linked to forests, and in Kenya, this is true for the majority of the population. The constant struggle between long-term conservation and daily needs is an ongoing challenge that can only be resolved through collaborative action. By aligning the interests of all stakeholders involved, reforestation and forest conservation efforts can lead to rural economic development, raising the standards of living in developing countries and ensuring the preservation of the world’s natural resources.

Post by Katie Emick

Works Cited

[1] Docksai, Rick. “DISAPPEARING FORESTS? Actions to Save the World’s Trees.” The Futurist (2013): 45-51. ProQuest. Web.

[2] Muga, Wycliffe. “A Tale of Two Forests.” African Business 03 2009: 44-5. ProQuest. Web.

[3] Adimo, Aggrey Ochieng, et al. “Land use and Climate Change Adaptation Strategies in Kenya.” Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change 17.2 (2012): 153-71. ProQuest. Web.

[4] Adimo, Aggrey Ochieng, et al. “Land use and Climate Change Adaptation Strategies in Kenya.” Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change 17.2 (2012): 153-71. ProQuest. Web.

[5] Muga, Wycliffe. “A Tale of Two Forests.” African Business 03 2009: 44-5. ProQuest. Web.

[6] Sulo, Chelangat, Kipkoech, Chepngeno, Tuitoek. “Factors influencing the willingness to pay for environmental services in forest conservation in Kenya: The Case of forests in the Mount Elgon District.” INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF BUSINESS RESEARCH: Vol. 12:1. (2012): 187-191. ProQuest. Web

[7] Juma, Francis. “Fencing Mountains in Kenya.” African Business 03 2010: 48-9. ProQuest. Web.

[8] Panko, Ron. “Footprints in the Sky.” Best’s Review 112.9 (2012): 88. ProQuest. Web.

[9] HENRY, MATIEU, et al. “Implementation of REDD+ in Sub-Saharan Africa: State of Knowledge, Challenges and Opportunities.” Environment and Development Economics 16.4 (2011): 381-404. ProQuest. Web.