The government has lined up for prosecution tens of individuals it believes bear the greatest responsibility for the dishing out of huge swathes of the 46,000-hectare Maasai Mau forest.
Rift Valley Regional Commissioner George Natembeya says the government has collected all it needs — green cards, topographical maps and gazette notices — and that it was all systems go for their arraignment to face charges for the destruction of one of the largest closed canopy forests in Africa.
Among those targeted are top politicians and former Lands ministry officials who were stationed in Narok and Nairobi at the time of the plunder. Others are county council officials and group ranch leaders.
“All government officials who were involved have recorded statements. For those who have died, we have gone to their graves to confirm that they have indeed died. We also have their death certificates,” Mr Natembeya told the Nation in an exclusive interview.
This development is likely to end the nearly three decades of inertia, politicking and delays in resolving the unbridled encroachment on a forest considered the mainstay of millions of people in Kenya and Tanzania.
“We have already handed their files to the DPP, and it’s just a matter of time before they are arrested and charged,” Mr Natembeya said recently.
The cases may coincide with the removal of close to 5,000 families said to be living in the disputed land in Narok County. A 60-day notice issued three weeks ago lapses in November.
About 17,101 hectares of the Forest’s original 45,743.8 hectares have gone in addition to 32,000 hectares of its reserve.
The encroachment continues, even now. “There was a caveat placed in 2009, but the (irregular) allocations continue,” said Mr Natembeya.
In the eye of the storm include registered surveyors, Lands and Forestry officials, and top leaders of five group ranches.
Officials of the group ranches — Reiyo, Enkaroni, Sisiyan, Enaikishomi and Enoosokon — took advantage of President Daniel Moi’s directive in the 1990s to subdivide their pieces, to invade the neighbouring Maasai Mau forest.
After ballooning their boundaries, they roped in the now-defunct Narok County Council staff, surveyors and public servants to make the encroachment appear legal.
Persons of interest include registered surveyors Jackton Mogaka, George Gaya, Silas Mukethectares, Francis Kipngetich and Joseph Mukhole. Others are land registrars John Chepkirui (deceased), A.S Bamosa and Joseph Onyambu.
The officials of group ranches at the centre of the irregularity include Napatau ole Kana, Rukuti ole Konata and Sanja ole Sankei (Sisiyan Group Ranch).
Other wanted officials are Sampele ole Maleto, Fredrick Cheres, Benson Kori (Reiyo Group Ranch), Oloosuya ole Tiyo, Juma ole Kimanyim and Lemein ole Kiputa (Enoosokon Group Ranch), and David Lekuta ole Sulunye, Stanley Naiyeya Sirma and William ole Sirma (Enokishomi Group Ranch).
Mr Natembeya said files of the ranch leaders are ready. “Small or big, no one is going to be spared and that is the position we are communicating today,” Environment Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko had warned in an earlier interview.
Every attempt to restore the Maasai Mau forest has turned into a game of musical chairs.
Four governments (Kanu, Narc, Coalition and Jubilee) later, four task forces and three rounds of evictions, the forest is yet to be surveyed, gazetted and titled.
It remains a trust land, a magnet to speculators with a hyena’s lust for public land. Indeed, every attempt to protect it has often ended up as an exercise in futility.
Instructively, Maasai Mau is not just an ordinary forest. Apart from being the lifeline of Maasai Mara Game Reserve, it’s the birthplace of two major components of the well-being of Kenya and Tanzania, the Ewaso Nyiro and Mara rivers.
If it is destroyed, the Mara - Serengeti ecosystem (which hosts the spectacular wildebeest migration) - would lose all its plant and animal life.
Tea estates in counties neighbouring Narok will wither, and the region’s livestock sector will crumble
This latest development came as the Nation carried out extensive investigations in Narok, Nakuru and Nairobi in a bid to unravel this pilferage.
We can now reconstruct the plunder that’s transforming a once-continuous canopy into an ecological disaster. The mayhem was methodical but hardly intricate.
It all started in the 1980s when pockets of people invaded it in search of chectaresrcoal and timber.
But the blitzkrieg came in the 1990s after officials of five group ranches next to this forest — Reiyo, Enkaroni, Sisiyan, Enaikishomi, Enoosokon — took advantage of President Moi’s directive to the ranches to subdivide their pieces among respective members.
The ranches applied for consent in 1999 to subdivide their pieces. Even at this time, the encroachment on the forest had started in earnest, and this forced authorities to evict illegal squatters in 1984.
Two years later, the government formed the oft-quoted Ntutu Presidential Commission to delineate the forest. Then, the five group ranches owned 3,975.5 hectares.
This commission led by paramount chief Lerionka ole Ntutu declared boundaries and recommended this forest be gazetted.
Then things unravelled. Officials of these group ranches comprising Maasais and Ogieks went beyond their boundaries and invaded the forest.
From 3,975.5 hectares, the allocated area ballooned to 18,078.2 hectares, an increase of 14,103.7 hectares. The land parcels resettled rose from 814 to 1,962.
Sisiyan Group Ranch expanded (through boundary amendment no. MUT/AM/NAR/1463/2000) from 44.5 hectares to 1,215.6 hectares, Nkaroni from 1,597.5 hectares to 5,582.5 hectares, Enoosokon from 155 hectares to 653 hectares, Enakishomi from 1,748.5 to 9,748.5, while Reiyo increased from 26 hectares to 878.6 hectares.
Reiyo, a group ranch initially far from the Maasai Mau Forest, manipulated its boundary to include a parcel inside the forest.
One of the allocations in this Reiyo group benefited then-Narok District Land Registrar John Chepkurui.
The boundary of Enakishomi, a group ranch in Olololunga, was altered in 1998 through amendment MUT/NAR/317/4/98, according to available documents.
The plunder was as blatant as it was bold and the appetite was pervasive.
Leaders of the group ranches and Lands ministry officials defied various caveats and restrictions and went further to alter their boundaries.
Up until now, the allocations are still mutating, according to multiple interviews in the area.
For instance, despite a restriction on the Enkaroni Group Ranch title, the Chief Registrar of Lands went ahead to remove this caveat nine years later, on December 27, 1989.
About 13 months later, another restriction was placed. Further, the Chief Land Registrar, through letter ref NRK/B/34/Vol.II/217 dated April 4, 1999, removed the restriction.
“Even now, (a former official) of Reiyo Group Ranch is still giving out plots,” says Joseph ole Karia, a member of the ‘Prime Minister’s Task Force on the Conservation of the Mau Forest Complex’ and a former councillor of Olololulunga Ward in Narok County.
This inconceivable increases were meant to benefit non-members, known by the moniker “acceptees” =, in exchange of money or kind.
The transactions were done in hotels, away from the site. This explains why in Enakishomi’s case, for instance, the perpetrators merely changed the first digit of its registered land, from 1 (1,748.5 hectares) to 9 (9,748.5 hectares) — an increase of 8,000 hectares.
The acceptees — civil servants and politicians — then moved exceedingly fast to dispose of their pieces to unsuspecting buyers mostly from neighbouring Bomet and Kericho counties.
The Maasai Mau Forest became a gold rush. It was also a theatre of the absurd. Double, even multiple allocations were the order of the day. Non-existent land was offered for sale.
Some of the plots have since changed hands more than 10 times. Latest figures indicate that 10,000 households occupy the disputed land yet only 712 have titles.
In 1999, a group of 20 councillors comprising members of the Environment and Wildlife Committee of the Narok County Council on a fact-finding mission in Maasai Mau Forest decided to allocate themselves plots rather than report back about its destruction.
Retired army officer Zephaniah Ruto Kones, who has been the poster boy of all evictions since 2005, has four “titles” to pieces the government considers part of the Maasai Mau Forest.
After purchasing the land using money he made during peacekeeping missions in Sierra Leone and Bosnia, he embarked on investments, including turning his two-acre plot into a trading centre he symbolically renamed Sierra Leone.
“I had a garage, a storied building, a car park, many shops,” says the father of seven. “I have 22 acres and 14 acres of shamba. I have four titles I acquired in 2000 and 2001. They’re all genuine.”
But the government says his titles are irregular — acquired fraudulently.
So how and why was this fraud so simple to execute? Why would a government trash land titles it issued out to its own citizens?
Two things facilitated the plunder of Maasai Mau Forest and turned its restoration into a nightmare. One, this forest is a trust land — a resource belonging to a community.
Unlike the 21 neighbouring forest blocks, Maasai Mau Forest has neither been surveyed nor gazetted and titled as a forest.
Its boundaries are also not clear, thus attracting speculators out to reap from the confusion over its status.
With this hindsight, the perpetrators devised a deceptive regime to benefit from the forest.
The syndicate assembled officials of the group ranches, Narok councillors and council staff, Ministry of Lands officials, private and government surveyors, and forest personnel. These persons are guilty of sins of omission and commission.
They then frustrated any move to survey, gazette and title the forest. Then they rushed to the Forest Department (now Kenya Forest Services) and Survey of Kenya and removed the declarations by the Ntutu Commission, including the map of boundaries.
For the first time, the Nation can reveal that authorities are unable to firmly declare the forest’s official boundaries.
The report of the proceedings of the Ntutu Commission and its boundary markings cannot be traced in any of the government departments — Kenya Forest Services or the Survey of Kenya — where they were meant to be safeguarded.
“It is not there,” said a senior conservationist.
The Raila Task force was unable to access the Ntutu Commission declarations. The 1996 Taskforce on the Gazettment of Narok Forests couldn’t find the document.
Now, to re-enact the boundaries, authorities have based their decisions on proxy information — sketch notes and maps generated during the sitting of the Ntutu Commission.
“It was an intricate plan,” says a former member of the task force.
The area forest officer who, ideally should have protected the forest from invasion, instead gave a “letter of no objection” to the group ranches seeking to expand their boundaries.
Ministry of Lands officials, jointly with councillors and county officials, embarked on demarcation based on this letters.
When Jubilee ascended to power in 2013, it also got entangled in the mess.
It now emerges that senior politicians pushed for the establishment of the now disputed Nyayo Tea Zones as a buffer against further encroachment, but also as a way of locking in settlers already in the area, safeguarding them against future evictions.
This boundary is six kilometres inside the forest, as opposed to the cutline tat is now cited as the official demarcation.
“This was a scheme to give the people false confidence that the ballooning was credible; that this was a trust land available for settlement,” Mr Natembeya says.
In Narok County, the home of this endangered forest, the despair over its survival is palpable.
“(Many) task forces have been set up (to save Mau) but there’s little light,” says Meitamei olol Dapash, an adjunct professor at Prescott University in the US and a long time advocate of the environment and indigenous rights.
Indeed, the Maasai Mau Forest is a political hot potato. It is fodder for human rights advocates opposed to evictions on one hand, and the powerful beneficiaries in haste to invoke ethnic loyalties as measure against the reclaiming of the key water tower, on the other.
Swords are unsheathed as top politicians take positions on the evictions scheduled for next November.
“If there is no water, there will be no security of any kind. Already we are feeling the tension here where women walk for long distances in search of water. We can keep postponing this time bomb, but the cost of inaction and politicking will be catastrophic,” warns Prof Dapash.