Pubdate: Tue, 11 Mar 2003 Source: Daily Nation (Kenya) Copyright: 2003 Nation Newspapers Contact: (254-2)213946 Website: http://www.nationaudio.com/News/DailyNation/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/868 Author: Cyrus Kinyungu DEATH KNELL TOLLS FOR BHANG GROWING Nairobi The Government plan to uproot hundreds of hectares of bhang in Mt Kenya Forest might mark the end of an era for drug dealers. The move will set the Government against powerful drug barons who have made a fortune by destroying the forest for more than a decade. It might also show the lack of commitment by the former Kanu regime to evict bhang growers from the forest. During a recent tour of the forest, Government officials led by Environment minister Newton Kulundu were shocked to find well-kept and blossoming bhang plots. They discovered that bhang cultivation in the forest had taken a new form, with growers resorting to small and scattered plots instead of the usual expansive fields. The forest is dotted with small bhang patches of about one acre with some as small as the size of charcoal kilns. But the extent of destruction was clear and evident. Most of the patches are on high altitude and cold areas, far from human habitation and where attacks by wildlife are unlikely. Bhang growers brave all these and clear bamboo vegetation to cultivate the drug because the benefits are enormous. Deep in the forest, the drug is inter-cropped with food crops. Tracing the bhang farms has been a problem because they are not easily visible even by aerial survey. It requires a trained eye to pick out marijuana from food crops being cultivated through the shamba system. But now, the Environment ministry is in a better position to monitor forest destruction and bhang growing: it has access to numerous Kenya Wildlife Service resources. The KWS owns a helicopter and fleet of light aeroplanes that could be used to monitor forests as well as wildlife. However, with the current challenge of bhang cultivation and the numerous human wildlife conflicts, the ministry needs a second helicopter. The helicopter is the only aircraft fit to patrol the forests. Dr Kulundu, who was accompanied by his British counterpart, Mr Michael Meacher, last month went on a symbolic uprooting of the bhang in the forest. Mt Kenya National Park Senior Warden, Mr Bongo Woodley, and Chief Conservator of Forests Gideon Gathaara accompanied them. Dr Kulundu said the cultivation of the drug in Kenyan forests could not be blamed "beyond the Kanu regime" and that his uprooting of the herb symbolised the Government's commitment to eliminating the vice. The minister said the cultivation had decreased significantly but observed that the estimates could be misleading because of the growers' tricks. The cultivation of the herb, initially confined to Mt Kenya Forest, has spread to Chyulu Hills at the Coast. In 1999, it was estimated that 200 hectares of Kenyan forests were under marijuana cultivation but the minister said the figure had reduced to about 50 hectares. KWS officials spent three days in Mt Kenya Forest uprooting patches of bhang, before the visit by the ministers. The minister said he was shocked that the cultivation had continued for more than five years, during which the drug was transported to local and international market yet no one had been arrested. He said he had to personally uproot the bhang to symbolise the end of an era in which drug cultivation was condoned by a government. The British minister said he was pleased by the Narc Government's commitment and promised to lobby for support from his country to assist Kenya in its endeavours to improve the environment. "I will hold talks with the minister for Overseas Development to discuss how Britain could assist Kenya in realising its dreams to upgrade its environment," Mr Meacher said. He promised that Britain would assist Kenya with equipment to help monitor the cultivation of the drug in the forests. Prof Wangari Maathai, the Environment assistant minister, blamed the bhang cultivation on the shamba system. She said the problem had arisen because everyone could enter the forests pretending to be cultivating food crops. The only solution, she said, was to ban all activities in the forest. She said bhang cultivation had reduced from the time tree logging was banned in 1999. A ban on logging and the shamba system, Prof Maathai said, would help the country to increase the forest cover from 1.9 per cent to the internationally required standards of 10 per cent. The challenge facing the Government, she said, was to replant the patches from which bhang was uprooted with trees. Five years ago, KWS estimated the total area under bhang to be about 500 acres. A spot check in the forests then showed that the crop was grown mainly on the Meru South part of the forest in five to 20-acre patches. An operation by the Provincial administration and the anti-narcotics unit to rid the forest of the drug was suspended because of the difficult terrain. The bhang was processed inside the forest and transported to Nairobi at night. A former Meru District Commissioner, Mr Alexander Njue, at one time told the coordinator of National Agency Against Drug Abuse, Mr Joseph Kaguthi, that the drug was cultivated by influential people. "If you know the kind of people behind this practice, you lose hope," Mr Njue was quoted saying. Environmental experts said the drug could not be eliminated by spraying with herbicides as it could adversely affect the environment. They said this would destroy the natural habitat and pollute rivers in the water catchment areas. Planting of the drug in the forest has resulted into increased human-wildlife conflict in areas neighbouring the forest. This is as a result of the interference with the natural habitats of wild animals displacing some of them to the human settlements. Recently, the Environment minister cited Mt Kenya and Chyulu Hills as the most seriously affected areas. Dr Kulundu warned the merchants: "We are piecing evidence about those behind it and once it is complete, appropriate action will be taken."