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Fear exotic fast-growing trees: Turkanians ask NORAD to clean up

NORAD's forestation project in the Turkana district in Kenya in the 1980s is now facing criticism from the local population in the area. The planting of the imported, fast-growing tree Prosopis has led to fear of an uncontrolled spreading which may upset the vulnerable ecology in the dry area and ruin the livelihood of the nomads in Turkana. Researchers from Oslo University confirm the problem of Prosopis spreading, and say that people they have talked to in Turkana ask NORAD to come and remove the exotic trees.
Artikkelen er mer enn to år gammel. Ting kan ha endret seg.
NORAD's forestation project in the Turkana district in Kenya in the 1980s is now facing criticism from the local population in the area. The planting of the imported, fast-growing tree Prosopis has led to fear of an uncontrolled spreading which may upset the vulnerable ecology in the dry area and ruin the livelihood of the nomads in Turkana. Researchers from Oslo University confirm the problem of Prosopis spreading, and say that people they have talked to in Turkana ask NORAD to come and remove the exotic trees.


By Harald Eraker
Norwatch
 
NORAD's presence in the Turkana district in the north-western part of Kenya started as early as the 1960s. The motivation was to aid Turkana in a situation of food shortage caused by drought in the barren district. During the 1970s NORAD was involved in various projects in the region, related to, among other things, health, education, agriculture, and fisheries.

In 1980, NORAD made an agreement with Kenyan authorities to support a major, co-ordinated district development programme, the Turkana Rural Development Plan (TRDP), in the central and northern parts of the Turkana district west of the large Lake Turkana. NORAD's participation and financing of the project lasted until 1990. At that time NORAD had to leave the country because of the diplomatic rupture between Kenya and Norway.

The total support to TRDP amounted to 133 million Norwegian kroner, according to Tor Haug in NORAD.
 
"The Prosopis grows faster and spreads more than the Acacia trees. After some time it turns into a thick undergrowth. There is a danger that the Prosopis may prevent regeneration of the important, traditional plants. If this happens, there will be an ecological disaster in the Turkana area."
Jørn Stave, student doing ecology as his main subject at Oslo University

Planting the desert
One aim of the TRDP was to aid the forest sector in Turkana, both by informing on the value of existing forest, and by planting. NORAD supported this with 11 million kroner.

The purpose was to contribute to turn the dry desert-like landscape green, to make it yield increased resources, among other things in the form of fodder for the livestock of the nomads.

During the 1980s, 900,000 seedlings were planted in the area, according to NORAD's review of the project from 1989. In total this covered an area of 3000 hectares, or 30 square kilometres.

Even though many different types of wood were planted, including local types, it was, according to NORAD, the Prosopis Chilensis and the Prosopis Juliflora which were actually planted.

Prosopis is a fast-growing bush-like type of wood which originates from North America.

Poisonous
Now it turns out that there are several problems related to the Prosopis trees which cause local concern. Ecology student at Oslo University, Jørn Stave, and a fellow student came back from two months of fieldwork in Turkana last autumn.

- We met people who, for several reasons, were very sceptical about Prosopis, and who asked us to tell NORAD that they had to come and remove the destructive trees, says Stave.

- It was also said that harmful grasshopper swarms which used to pass by the area, now stop there because of the Prosopis trees. This causes concern, Stave continues.

Uncontrolled
Jørn Stave's field work took place along the Turkwell river which flows into the Lake Turkana. In 1990, Stave's university supervisor, Gufu Oba, mapped the vegetation in the area. Oba was a shepherd boy himself in his young age, and comes from an area near Turkana.

- My project was to register the changes of the vegetation that have taken place since that time. I systematically went through 140 squares of 15 times 15 metres and registered the types of plants and the number of each type, says Stave.

He then compared the data he had collected with Gufu Oba's registrations.

- The investigations clearly show that the Prosopis has spread. In squares which had no Prosopis in 1990, the exotic type of wood is growing today. Additional observations support this finding. Along the shore of the Lake Turkana the Prosopis even grows far into the water, Stave ascertains.
 
"We met people in Turkana who, for several reasons, were very sceptical about Prosopis, and who asked us to tell NORAD that they had to come and remove the destructive trees."
Jørn Stave, student doing ecology as his main subject at Oslo University

Displacement
Stave's main concern is that the Prosopis may stifle and displace other useful vegetation. The perhaps most important plant for the nomads is, according to Stave, the Acacia Tortilis tree, which grows almost everywhere in the area.

The nomads have a strong feeling of ownership to the Acacia trees which, in addition to feeding the animals and giving people food and fuel, have a cultural significance as well.

- The Prosopis grows faster and spreads more than the Acacia trees. After some time it turns into a thick undergrowth. There is a danger that the Prosopis may prevent regeneration of the important, traditional plants. If this happens, there will be an ecological disaster in the Turkana area, says Stave.
 
"NORAD has not been involved in Kenya since 1990, so I see no reason for following up this issue. In addition, we have no money on our budget to do anything. If someone should act, it would have to be the Ministry of Foreign Affairs."
Head of the regional departments in NORAD, Kjell Storløkken

Complicated
NORAD's review of the TRDP project which was published in 1989 says nothing about the danger of spreading related to the introduction of Prosopis or dangers related to the fact that the plant is poisonous or attracts grasshopper swarms. However, head of the regional departments in NORAD, Kjell Storløkken, says that some years ago they received complaints that animals had died because they grazed on Prosopis leaves.

- At that time we had experts from the Agricultural University of Norway to analyse leaves, shells and trunk of Prosopis trees from Turkana. Their conclusion was that the leaves were slightly poisonous, but not enough to have fatal consequences for animals that eat them, says Storløkken.

He further points out that the picture is complicated regarding the import of Prosopis into the Turkana area:

- Many different development aid organisations from a variety of countries have been involved in this regard. Therefore it is not certain that it is "our" trees they complain about, says Storløkken.

Sceptical
NorWatch has also contacted Lars Oppsal and Edmund Barrow, who both worked for NORAD within the forest sector in Turkana in the 1980s.

Oppsal, who is retired now, admits that he was sceptical about the introduction of Prosopis because it spreads so quickly, but he stresses that he is no botanist.

Barrow, on the other hand, who also points out that he is no expert on the type of wood in question, rejects that Prosopis can be harmful to animals:

- I have eaten the shells of the trees myself. They are excellent animal fodder. When it comes to the leaves, they are so bitter that goats that take a bite spit them out again, he says.

Cary Hendy, who is doing research on the fodder value of, among other things, the Prosopis at the Natural Resources Institute in England, says that as far as he knows, Prosopis is not poisonous.

- But if animals eat the leaves during dry periods, it may lead to indigestion. After a new plant has been introduced, it may also cause trouble for animals before they adjust to "the new diet", Hendy explains.

Supervision
In his opinion NORAD should take the complaints seriously, both regarding spreading of Prosopis, the grasshopper problem, and the fodder question.

- In my opinion a supervision programme should be started to examine the development of these questions in Turkana, for example every fifth year, says Hendy.

Storløkken in NORAD, on the other hand, sees few possibilities of acting in this case:

- In a normal situation it would be natural for us to contact the responsible forest authorities of the country. But we have not been involved in Kenya since 1990, so I see no reason for following up this issue. In addition, we have no money on our budget to do anything. If someone should act, it would have to be the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he says.

Norwatch Newlsetter 1/99

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