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Politics and Conservation, The Pain of Restoration

According to Kenya Forest Services and Environmentalists, the forest areas around Mau forest which is 400, 000 hectares have highest rainfall rates. Numerous rivers (over 12); flow from the complex to different lakes within and outside Rift Valley Province. At its highest pick, Mau forest is usually a site to behold, massive rivers rumbling their courses between valleys and ridges, wild animals crisscrossing the valleys and green vegetation that coat the canopy of the remaining indigenous tall trees. In 1980s and 90s people were irregularly allocated land by the then KANU government within the Mau forest and now the current administration of the coalition arrangement has found it urgently necessary to swallow the bitter pill and save the complex the painful way…. My Tour to the Mau revealed that the government is indeed resolved to evicting all illegal occupants left, causing the catchments political temperatures to rise exponentially.

As the world marked the Environment Day on June 5 focus in Kenya shifted to conservation and management of a key natural resource – forest. It is this resource that has occasioned a tug of war for the better part of the last two years between political leaders in the largest province Rift Valley and the office of the Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

Rift Valley province is endowed with several outstanding physical features; the Menengai crater, hot springs of Lake Bogoria, wild animals and birds of Lake Nakuru among others. However at the heart of the Valley is one gigantic body of overriding blocks of forest originally divided into 22 blocks and touching all ends, North, South, East and Western sides – The controversial Mau forest complex that has deepened the valley and widened the rift between legislators representing communities residing in forest and the office of the Prime Minster. Weather has drastically changed in many parts of the country with temperatures increasing phenomenon weather experts and environmentalists attribute to destruction of Mau forest and other water catchments. Members of parliament from North Rift region led by Roads Minister Franklin Bett and his counter part and former Agriculture Minister William Ruto have not denied presence of settlers in the Mau but have sharply differed with the government on the relocation process insisting that the squatters should be given a land elsewhere. The legislators have opposed the relocation something that has severed their relations with the P.M. Will the P.M and the legislators who supported him hundred percent in 2007 general elections ever reconcile? Who will blink first? Only time in will tell.

The Mau forest was affected by wild fires in 2009 believed to have been largely as a result of arsonists and farming activities, a fire that destroyed over 3000 hectares of mostly plantations and indigenous trees. The incident piled more pressure on the government to move swiftly and rescue the forest by evicting the people there in. Kenya Forest Services (K.F.S) director David Mbugua says Mau complex is currently a collection of over seven blocks of forest and borders Nakuru town to the North, Narok to the South and Kericho to the West. Mbugua says that water from the Mau serves more than 4 million people located in 578 different areas in Kenya and parts of Northern Tanzania.

“Over twelve rivers that flow from Mau feed Lakes Nakuru, Baringo, Bogoria, Victoria, Elementaita and Natron,” adds Mbugua. River Mara that flows from the Mau presents a spectacular annual event pitting crocodiles and thousands of wild beasts as they cross to and from Serengeti in Tanzania. The dramatic event has been recorded as one of the wonders of the world. However my visit to the source of Mara recently revealed that the source had sadly became seasonal.

“Rivers Sondu, Yala and Nyando also emanate from Mau and end at Lake Victoria while Rivers Njoro and Makalia feed Lake Nakuru. Other rivers include Ewaso Nyiro, Kerio and Mara. Lakes Natron and Turkana which are important flamingos’ breeding areas get water from Mau,” Mbugua goes on.

Kenya Wildlife Services (K.W.S) Director Julius Kipngetich avers that Mau forest is habitat to some endangered mammals like buffaloes, bongo antelope, blue and red-tailed monkeys and different species of birds.

“The government is now seeking Sh.38 billion to rescue all these from eventual disappearance and mitigate increasingly deteriorating weather patterns in two years time,” says the Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

The debate to save the 400, 000 hectares of the largest water tower in the country started in 2009 and the rift between politicians representing people residing in the Mau and the Prime Minister has widened ever since. The responsibility to spear head rehabilitation of the complex was placed on the shoulders of the Prime Minister Odinga by the office of the President. The task has proved onerous for the P.M. who is overly determined to ensure completion of work of restoration of the complex.

To show the seriousness in the rehabilitation efforts the government formed an Interim Coordinating Secretariat to head the two-year program of saving the greatly eroded Mau forest complex. Coincidentally the man picked to head the secretariat was the immediate former Provincial Commissioner of Rift Valley Province Hassan Noor. Hassan perhaps chosen owing to his vast experience in the administrative nature of the area and demographic distribution of the expansive province.

According to a report by a commission appointed to investigate land grabbing in the country, “illegal settlers who started trickling in to the forest in 1980’s and 90’s also include some senior politicians, civil servants and business people in the current and former president Daniel Moi’s governments.

Many of the allocations by former KANU government were done as political bait to win loyalty from the residents the report says.” The report also states that former president Moi was a beneficially of the Mau allocation with up to 10, 000 hectares of land belonging to him under tea crop dubbed Kiptagich tea farm. Chief coordinator of the secretariat on Mau Hassan Noor has however maintained that the Kiptagich settlement was not affected by the first phase of eviction. The land report of 2004 written by Ndung’u Commission termed the allocation of land in Mau as illegal and recommended revocation of the same.

The prolonged deterioration of climatic conditions in the country pushed the government, private sector and international community to act fast and save major water towers in the country from total destruction. Most of the illegal settlers of the Mau, the report indicates, came from different districts including Bomet, Bureti, Kipkelion, Nandi, Kericho, Kuresoi and Trans Mara district. Drying of many rivers and Lakes in the Rift Valley and other provinces has been attributed to Mau degradation through tree felling by the settlers. However, several business people in Nakuru led by one Francis Karanja have refuted claims that members of one community as mentioned by the report were the only ones affected by the eviction orders. Karanja says that he was also a “beneficiary of the allocation at Kapseita in East Mau and was ready to surrender the title deed.”

Kapsita is in Elburgon Township where 5000 people settled. The government has now decided that both the legal and illegal settlers must pack and leave to their land of nativity and pave way for rehabilitation of the forest. The only group regarded as indigenous people according to historical documents in the Mau forest are the Ogiek who make up a population of 5,484 people. Their activities of hunting and gathering are deemed as harmless to the forest. After the lapse of a deadline to willingly leave the forest, the bitter reality dawned on the settlers when they saw forest rangers and Administration police officers arriving in the forest. The mere presence of the armed officers in the 19, 000 hectares of South Western Mau was enough for the squatters to start leaving voluntarily. The picture that captures your attention as you approach the forest where there are over 15 camps in the South Western Mau is that of desperation with haggard looking settlers expressing their disbelieve at the move by the government.

One Rachel Segemchumo camping at Lalpanget at Kiptagich claims that the settlers were victims of “rich people who acquired land in Mau then sold it to the poor plus the administration that also dished out the land to the majority underprivileged people.” Her sentiments are echoed by many other evictees. The squatters are however coming to terms with the reality of leaving their former homes but have refused to board Lorries provided by the government to take them back to their respective home districts. Structures supported on bamboo sticks, green twigs and leaves are currently homes to the victims of illegal apportionment of land who have now found themselves at the end of their wits.
The rainy season has only served to worsen the situation; children squirm near the fireplace as their parents keep their eyes at the horizons in expectancy of any relief that could come their way. Cold related illnesses have also begun taking toll on many settlers and the number is rising each day with many being taken to the hospital.

The government has deployed hundreds of officers who urged the squatters to start leaving the forest since the notice had expired. Currently over 5000 settlers have pitched camps at different locations not knowing their next direction. “They are not supposed to form new camps within the forest but are supposed to move away to the districts they came from” says an officer from administration police who does not want to be mentioned due to sensitivity of the matter.

Kuresoi district commissioner Silas Gitobu has assured over 300 hundred families camping at Kipkambu camp that “the food rations supplied to them were the first and the last ones which were meant to sustain them as they return to their home districts.” The government has maintained that the settlers came from different districts that were their homes and were therefore supposed to go back. The first phase of the eviction that affects over 1,650 families, the government asserts has so far assisted reclaiming over fifty percent of Mau forestland.

PETERPeter Kahare is a freelance journalist based in Nakuru County of Rift Valley province in Kenya, East Africa.

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