Kenya's Wood-Carvers Face Uncertain Future
By Alan Hamilton*

A thriving wood-carving industry in Kenya is threatened by rapidly diminishing wood supplies. WWF, along with several other concerned organisations, is currently researching viable alternatives.

MOMBASA, Kenya: Any visitor to Kenya is sure to be offered the chance to buy wooden carvings. Shops and street-side stalls are laden with handicrafts. The fortunate may even get the opportunity to visit the workshops.

The Akambaa Handicrafts Cooperative Society in Mombasa has about 400 visitors every day, who apart from purchasing mementos, have the opportunity to chat with the carvers. On some days, up to 1,200 can be found working there. Kenya's wood-carving business is obviously substantial, but until recently no one quite realized how considerable this was.

Wood-carving can provide monetary income in a country with relatively few opportunities. At a very rough guess, perhaps 60,000 people are engaged in this activity. Given family structures, this means that probably well over quarter of a million people are economically dependent on the carving industry.

Unfortunately though, this also means there is a conservation problem, and because of this, there are clear indications that this business cannot be sustained. The trees preferred by these carvers are rapidly disappearing because of their immediate commercial value. Meanwhile, given the level of resources available for protection of national parks and forest reserves, effective control is very difficult to achieve.

Some carvers belong to cooperatives, such as that at Mombasa which has 4000 registered members and monthly sales of about $200,000. Each carver is only allowed to place 10 pieces in the retail shop. However, it is estimated that he manufactures perhaps 6 or 7 times as many for sale privately.

Also the majority of carvers in Kenya are not registered with cooperatives at all, which in turn puts greater pressure on the trees.

A number of organizations, including WWF-World Wide Fund For Nature, have become concerned. They have decided to assess wood supplies and the demand for carving. The search is on to find ways to place the industry on a more stable footing.

WWF has a joint programme with UNESCO and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, called People and Plants. Several Kenyan organizations are also working with People and Plants on its wood-carving project. Funding for the project has been provided by the Darwin Initiative of Britain's Department of Environment.

Since June 1995, Raymond Obunga, the key worker on the project, has been undertaking a survey of the wood carvers. "The picture that emerges is of growing shortages, with trees being felled at ever more distant localities as nearby supplies are exhausted," he explains.

Take the case of Wamunyu, 100 miles east of Nairobi, where the industry began. Originally carvers relied on local supplies of the valuable mpingo (Dalbergia melanoxylon), which were exhausted by the 1940s. Subsequently, the equally valuable muhuhu (Brachylaena hutchinsii) was wiped out by 1956.

"By 1974, it had actually become worthwhile for collectors to return to the sites where muhuhu trees had once been felled to dig up the roots for sale," Obunga added. "Today no local supplies remain, and an estimated 200-300 tons per week are trucked in from 100 miles away and further."

Mpingo is incidentally the most valuable tree in Africa, volume for volume. Its hard heavy black wood is not only the number one choice of the wood carvers: it is also exported to Europe for the manufacture of clarinets and oboes.

The joint project is now researching remaining stocks of five major wood-carving tree species. There is need for urgent action to provide a continuing supply of carving timber, otherwise tens of thousands will lose their livelihood.

Two species emerging as prime candidates are the famous neem tree or murabaini (Azidarachta indica) and the mango. The project's results towards the end of 1996 should galvanize a debate. Hopefully, sufficient support will then emerge to take decisive collective action.

But there is also the question of the impact on plants and animals. Some trees are significant forest constituents. Cutting them will have a very significant impact on the survival chances of many other organisms.

There is a shed at the Akambaa Cooperative used by the wazee (elders), some in the business for over 50 years. Aware that the future of their industry is in jeopardy, they have begun using alternative wood from over 140 species. They know it is no longer possible to continue carving the favoured heavy and attractive types of wood available from slow-growing trees.

Clearly new stocks are needed, but where should the trees be grown? Present supplies come mostly from common land or government reserves - in which it is very difficult to regulate cutting. Perhaps the answer is to plant fast-growing trees, producing wood with adequate carving properties, on private land where landowners will have sufficient monetary incentive to protect them.

The carving industry in Kenya may look like it is based on age-old tradition, but isn't. Indeed, the whole business developed with one man's initiative. Mutisya Munge served with the British army during World War I in (what is now) Tanzania. He acquired the art from the Makonde, exceptional traditional carvers, whose homeland straddles the Mozambique-Tanzania border.

Back in Kenya in 1918, Mutisya Munge started to teach others about carving. Then the first sales started, to local European officials and farmers. The business mushroomed, with more people and places becoming involved.

However, Munge's native Wamunyu, with about 20,000 carvers, has remained the centre of activity. Presently land at Wamunyu is in the process of being registered to local farmers. Since many Wamunyu carvers come from farming families, this would appear to be a good basis to promote the planting of suitable fast-growing, hard wood trees among crops. If this happens, a significant source of employment will not be lost, and visitors to Kenya can continue to buy their prized wooden souvenirs.

(1,135 words)

Copyright 1996, The World Wide Fund For Nature