The Kenyan government has halted the transport and export of Kilifi baobabs to Georgia and ordered an investigation into how a foreign contractor obtained permission to transport the mature trees out of the country.
Kenya’s President William Ruto instructed the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to investigate whether Georgy Gvasaliya had the proper license to remove the trees from Kenya under the Nagoya Protocol, an international agreement that regulates the terms of genetic resource exports incorporated into Kenyan law.
The protocol requires communities to give any exports their prior informed consent, and an agreement between whoever takes them, the government and the community, on how the benefits are to be shared.
The move followed the Guardian’s report last month about growing concerns about the uprooting and transport of the trees from the Kilifi region of Kenya’s coast at a time when the country is trying to restore lost forest areas. Kilifi has experienced the third highest rate of tree loss in Kenya in the past two decades.
Baobabs can live for thousands of years, are drought tolerant and provide habitat for a number of species. They produce fruits that are high in vitamin C, antioxidants, calcium, potassium, and fiber, and the powder found in the fruits is used in smoothies and oatmeal. The bark has medicinal properties and oil from the seeds is used in beauty products.
Outrage over the export of the trees and debate among Kenyans over the need to protect the country’s environment and resources caught the attention of the President, who this week intervened in the export of the eight baobabs.
Ruth tweeted: “There must be proper approval and a fair benefit-sharing formula for Kenyans. In addition, the exercise must be consistent with the government’s agenda to plant 15 billion trees over the next 10 years.”
Shortly after the tweet was posted, the Ministry of Environment and Forests released an expression However, the environmental impact assessment permit granted to Gvasaliya in October, which allowed the trees to be uprooted and exported, was granted “irregularly”.
The ministry halted shipments with immediate effect, saying the trees could not be taken out of the country until agreements on their export were “regulated”. It said action would be taken against any government official who failed to follow proper procedures in processing the license, amid public calls for accountability.
Sofia Rajab, a human rights lawyer, said: “We must take responsibility for the flaws in the system that made this possible.”
The Guardian has learned the eight trees were exported to the Shekvetili Dendrological Park, owned by former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who has been involved in other uprooting activities along the Georgian coast.
Environmental groups welcomed the government’s announcement.
“This has sent a clear message to the world that exploitation of Kenya’s biodiversity can only take place if Kenyans are significant beneficiaries,” said Gus Le Breton, Chair of the African Baobab Alliance. “There is a big impact globally when it comes to reaffirming the importance of the Nagoya Protocol to regulate trade and biodiversity.”