The livelihoods of 12 million Kenyans hang in the balance unless the destruction of the Mau Forest Complex is stopped, even as the economy risks losing Sh110 billion annually to unrestrained greed and politicking.
According to various studies, the plunder threatens the Maasai Mara wildlife ecosystem, tea plantations in Kericho and Bomet highlands, livestock and other farming activities, hydroelectric power generation in western Kenya and the health of millions of Kenyans who depend on Mau complex water for domestic use.
By 2009, a quarter of the 400,00-hectare Mau complex — a once continuous canopy of 22 forest blocks — was in private hands, grabbed by top bureaucrats and politicians who eventually disposed of them to unsuspecting buyers.
These figures have since risen following the continuous invasion of the Maasai Mau, now in the eye of the storm following the government’s move to evict encroachers.
Although different research findings provide varying figures on the economic value of the Mau, all are in agreement that the pilferage is catastrophic to the economy and human health.
For instance, the Kenya Forest Research Institute, in a report last October, revealed that Mau is among three key water towers that contribute an annual Sh357 billion to the economy.
“Annual contribution of the Mau Forest Complex, Cherangany Hills, and Mt Elgon ecosystems is estimated to be Sh197 billion, Sh46 billion, and Sh11 billion,” according to the report, Economic Value of the Mau Forest, Cherangany Hills and Mt Elgon Water Towers.
And the Kenya Water Tower Agency, in a report tabled in Parliament, puts the value of the Mau complex at Sh110.512 billion and that of the Aberdares at Sh56.52 billion per year. Others who have undertaken similar studies include the Lake Victoria Basin Authority and the East African Community.
Maasai Mau is the catchment area for the Mara and Ewaso Ngiro rivers, which are the lifeline for the wildlife-rich Maasai Mara in Kenya and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
Eastern Mau is the headwaters for the Njoro River, which drains into Lake Nakuru, a protected wetland and a Unesco World Heritage Site. South West Mau is the source of Sondu River, the home of the Sondu Miriu power station, while the South West Mau is the source of rivers that quench the thirst of the Kericho highlands tea-growing areas.
The UN Environment Programme estimates that Mau forest catchments have “the potential to generate over 500MW of power or about 40 percent of Kenya’s current total generating capacity”, and warns that its destruction could cost the country Sh30 billion a year.
Yet greed now threatens all these rosy figures and facts. And the government is aware of the facts. A task force report presented to President Uhuru Kenyatta last year warned that the destruction of Kenya’s physical environment would hurt the country’s economic activities, including two of the much vaunted Big Four agenda aspirations of food security and industrialisation. The Taskforce to Inquire into Forest Resources Management and Logging Activities in Kenya called for urgent checking of forest depletion.
Earlier in the year, Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala described Lake Nakuru National Park as “as good as dead”. Reports indicate that rivers Njoro, Makalia and Nderit, which drain into the lake, are drying up due to massive destruction of the Mau complex, from where they spring.
The Sondu Miriu station currently operates at 50 percent capacity “due to declining water levels”, according to the Economic Value of the Mau Forest Complex, Cheragany Hills and Mt Elgon Water Towers in Kenya report. Half of South West Mau, which feeds the Sondu Miriu plant, was excised in 2001.
That apart, the Mau Complex provides a home for endangered or rare plant, bird and animal species. Between 1995 and 2017, the elephant population there dropped from 1,003 to 652, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service. Somehow, these vital statistics make little sense to authorities, who keep turning this critical ecological resource into a land bank and political capital. The Kanu government delineated thousands of hectares of this key forest. The subsequent Narc and Coalition regimes parcelled out parts of the remaining chunk to sustain themselves in power
While the encroachment began way back in the 1970s, the most devastating blow came on October 19, 2001 in the dying days of Kanu, when authorities excised 61,586.5 hectares at a go.
This is an area almost the size of Nairobi or the equivalent of 90,000 football pitches.
The pretext was to resettle about 14,216 Ogiek families and hundreds displaced in land clashes. However, only a small fraction of these benefited as the land pieces were eventually seized by ravenous individuals in government, some of whom would later be mentioned in the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Illegal/Irregular Allocation of Public Land, popularly known as Ndung’u Report.
Among the notable beneficiaries are Kiptagich Tea Factory, owned by former President Moi, former Internal Security Permanent Secretary Zakayo Cheruiyot, then Commissioner of Lands Sammy Mwaita, and Mr Moi’s personal assistant John Lokorio, according to the Ndung’u Report.
A former Commissioner of Lands awarded himself eight different plots using different names. Another powerful person was allocated 41 pieces.
Instructively, the Kanu government defied a High Court ruling to stop the 2001 excisions. This was also the transitional electioneering period that eventually swept Mr Mwai Kibaki to power the following year.
The incoming Land minister Amos Kimunya moved to reclaim Mau after aerial maps by conservationists Michael Gachanjah (coordinator of the Kenya Forest Working Group, at the time) and Christian Lambrechts (then with Unep) highlighted the wanton invasion of the forest. The two also disclosed that the Maasai Mau Forest, which had survived the 2001 annexation by a whisker, was now a target of predatory speculators. Mr Kimunya immediately ordered evictions. But this became an exercise in futility after his government allowed back the settlers in a bid to buy support during the divisive 2005 referendum.
This cycle of deceit would continue in the 2009-2010 period when rivalry within the Coalition government of President Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga torpedoed another round of evictions.
In 2010, a compensation scheme that would have finally put the Mau mayhem to rest was frustrated by a faction of the coalition government that thought it not expedient as it would have benefited Mr Odinga, who drove conservation efforts at a great political cost.
Even though the proposal to pay Mau landlords billions of shillings was shelved after it provoked outrage, with many Kenyans arguing that the settlers had obtained the land illegally, political competition carried the day.
And despite the obvious knowledge that the Maasai Mau was threatened, senior politicians in the Jubilee administration pushed for the establishment of the now disputed Nyayo Tea Zone in a bid to lock in settlers already in the area and safeguard them against future evictions. This tea zone (on the edge of Transmara forest) is six kilometres inside the Maasai Mau cutline.
Inexplicably, successive governments — Kanu, Narc, Coalition and Jubilee — have stonewalled on demands to have the newest cash cow, the Maasai Mau forest, surveyed, gazetted and titled, a position that leaves it vulnerable to further encroachment. As the government dawdles and dithers, greedy persons continue to devastate the critical water tower, denying millions of people a lifeline.
TOMORROW: In the final part, the five measures that hold the key to the Mau restoration