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Kenya blocks export of baobab trees to Georgia citing ‘irregularities’

A photo reportedly taken on 20 November showing an uprooted baobab tree ready for export to Georgia Photo: Kebin Odit via Nairobi News.

Kenyan authorities have moved to block the ‘uprooting and transportation’ of eight baobab trees to Georgia, after the government said that a license to uproot them was issued ‘irregularly’.

In a statement on Monday, Kenya’s Minister of Environment and Forestry, Roselinda Soipan Tuya, said she had revoked a license to transport the trees that had already been uprooted, while a license to uproot the trees had also been revoked.

Documents from the Kenyan Forestry Service seen by OC Media suggest that the trees were destined for the Shekvetili Dendrological Park, which was set up by the founder of Georgia’s ruling party and former prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Monday’s statement said that a private company began illegally uprooting trees in Kenya’s Kilifi County for export to Georgia, without receiving a license to do so.

It said the company then obtained a license, which a local official ‘irregularly issued’. 

The minister said the trees that had already been uprooted would be held until an agreement was ‘properly regularised’, including a ‘benefit sharing formula’. 

The minister added that such activities could go ahead if they complied with the Convention on Biodiversity, which requires the conservation of biodiversity, sustainability, and fair and equitable use of the benefits.

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A report by the Guardian in October identified Georgian national Giorgi Gvasalia as being behind the export of baobab trees to Georgia. They reported that Gvasalia began searching for the ‘perfect’ baobabs in late 2019, offering local residents 100,000–300,000 Kenyan shillings ($820–$2,500) for each one.

Gvasalia told the Guardian he was saving the trees, as local residents intended to cut them down to clear land for farming.

A photo reportedly showing Giorgi Gvasalia with an uprooted baobab. Photo: Fumba Town.

Wambui Ippolito, a New York-based Kenyan horticulturist and activist, said Gvasalia ‘specifically targeted the poorest of the poor’.

‘It’s such a bizarre episode. No one knows how he got the permit’, Ippolito told OC Media.

‘Kenyans of all walks of life are traumatised by what he did and we are thankful that he has been stopped’, she said, adding that the Baobab were ‘highly revered’ in Kenya. ‘They balance entire ecologies.’

‘What would Georgians do if a so-called Kenyan investor arrived in your country and decided to collect mountains? They would fight him off. It’s the same thing for us with our trees.’

‘Your former Prime Minister [Bidzina Ivanishvili] sounds like a real piece of work. His behaviour is what happens when a human being is so divorced from a nature consciousness, he begins to believe he has dominion over it’, Ippolito said.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder of Georgian Dream, is well known for his controversial tree-collecting hobby. Taming the Garden, a 2021 documentary about Ivanishvili’s tree-collecting, caused controversy after Georgia’s National Cinema Academy abruptly cancelled screenings of the film.

Sections of the film that did not make it to the final cut were last week aired by Chai Khana, which showed Giorgi Gvasalia, the director of the company responsible for uprooting baobabs in Kenya, conducting negotiations with officials in Zanzibar to uproot baobabs there. Gvasalia promises to fix the roads in return.