David Ben Gurion’s dream of filling Israel’s barren hills with trees will soon extend to the remote deserts of Kenya, after Kenyan government officials and Keren Keyemet L’Yisrael/Jewish National Fund signed a memorandum of understanding on Tuesday to exchange knowledge and expertise about planting forests in dry climates.
“Dry lands are home to 2.5 billion people, or 30 percent of the world’s population, and cover 40% of the world’s land surface,” said Professor Judi Wakhungu, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary (Minister) for Environment and Natural Resources. “They are also home to the most disenfranchised and marginalized people in the world.” About 80% of Kenya’s land is considered arid or semi-arid.
Wakhungu said large Kenyan delegations have been attending forestry conferences in Israel, especially at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, which focus on conservation and forestry in desert climates. In 2014, officials from the Kenyan Forestry Service started working with members of their Israeli counterpart, KKL/JNF, for a series of visits and meetings.
“Kenyans have a developed tree-planting culture, but what needs to be done is to get them to use appropriate technology,” said Emilio Mugo, the chief conservator at the Kenya Forest Service. He noted that Kenya has two million hectacres (20,000 square kilometers, approximately the same size as the entire country of Israel) of public forest land, but they want to expand further. “This kind of technology doesn’t require a lot of money, so we can start training people on this kind of technology while they work,” he said.
According to the memorandum of understanding, signed Tuesday in KKL/JNF’s “VIP Planting Grove” near the Yad Kennedy memorial, Kenya and Israel agreed to three years of exchange trips and sharing information about establishing forests in arid or semi-arid regions.
Deforestation from illegal logging and charcoal production is threatening many of Kenya’s highland forests, costing the country upwards of $68 million per year, according to a study from the United Nations Environment Programme.
Wakhungu said Kenya is looking to bring Israeli technology in areas of improving soil conservation, capturing rain runoff, monitoring precipitation, creating forest land guidelines, and engaging the public with forest conservation.
“Part of our goal is to enlarge the overall forestry in Kenya so people can use that wood for their needs and take the pressure off of natural forests that we need to protect,” said Dr David Brand, the chief forester and head of the forestry department at KKL/JNF. Brand has worked at KKL/JNF for 35 years, eight of them as chief forester. He said that KKL/JNF also plans to examine Kenya’s traditional agricultural methods to see if Israel can improve their existing technology.
Kenya also dedicated an “Israel Forest” in Kiambu County, north of Nairobi, on Israel’s Independence Day this year, with the hope that every Israeli who visits Kenya will replicate the Israeli tree planting tradition by planting a tree in the forest during their visit. She added that the collaboration between the Kenyan and Israeli forestry groups was one of the specific areas of cooperation highlighted both during President Uhuru Kenyatta’s visit to Israel in February, 2016 and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Kenya in July 2016.
“When the leaders met, collaboration about dry land forests was a major area of cooperation, and we are going to deliver on what they prioritized,” she said.
Since 2014, KKL/JNF has worked in Kenya’s remote northern region of Turkana, to run the agricultural development program “Furrows in the Desert” to help increase food security in the region.
Wakhungu and KKL-JNF World Chairman Danny Atar planted a carob tree together on Tuesday in honor of the signing of the MOU. Brand said they chose a carob tree because it symbolizes sustainability. “The carob tree is part of our roots, it is a very Israeli tree that is all over the Bible,” said Brand.
“Carob trees only have fruits after 70 years,” Brand added. “So there is the story in [Jewish tradition] about an old man who asks a farmer, why are you planting a carob tree if you will never enjoy it? And the farmer says, my father planted a carob tree so I can enjoy it, and I will do the same for my children. The symbolism is that all of our interactions with nature should really be about protecting them and keeping them whole for the next generation.”