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Mau Forest and Murchison Falls: The common enemy is not human, but greed and poor planning

Tuesday September 17 2019

By LUIS FRANCESCHI
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“Humans have wiped out about 60 percent of the world’s wildlife population in the last four decades. Earth is losing biodiversity at a rate seen only during mass extinctions”, and life is not much better for those who remain alive. “In the 1960s, five percent of seabirds had plastic in their stomachs, but that has now climbed to 90 percent”, according to a report published last year by the World Wildlife Fund’s 2018 Living Planet.

Scott Waldman of Scientific American, explains that “the biannual report looked at 4,000 species of amphibians, birds, fish, mammals and reptiles. It tracked how humanity’s appetite for land, energy and water has decimated animal populations. The species decline affects human health, food and medicine supplies.”

Wildlife protection is a disconcerting concept. Why should our wildlife need protection? Who is threatening it and why? Why do rangers man the gates of our national parks with high calibre rifles and guns?

Murchison Falls National Park is one of the most beautiful places I have seen in my life. Located in north-west Uganda, with an area of 389,000 hectares, it is the largest national park in the country.

Majestic wonderland

At Murchison Falls, life comes to a standstill; it is like being inside a majestic wonderland. The River Nile flows with all its might through a seven-metres narrow gorge. It then falls 43 metres down into a green valley, which is inhabited by thousands of wild animals, including overfed elephants and lions. They all bask by the river, waiting lazily for another idyllic sunset.

The drive from the Nile to the southern park gate goes through an intensely green thick tropical forest. The road is being widened and levelled by a Chinese oil company (CNOOC), which has been granted huge concessions to exploit oil within the park, together with Tullow and Total. According to Catrina MacKenzie, these corporations will extract from the National Park 2.5 billion oil barrels worth more than USD 2 billion in annual revenues for at least 20 years.

Like our own parks, Murchison’s park gates are guarded by heavily armed rangers. Just outside the park, life in rural Uganda hits the visitor with its damaged infrastructure, dilapidated schools and dispensaries, small shambas and low hygiene. It is poor!

Have these neighbours of Murchison ever benefitted from the park’s proceeds? Has the park improved their lives in any way? Why should they care for wildlife when they have no fuel to cook with, no place to grow sufficient food, no place to graze their cows, no electricity…no hope of breaking this unending miserable drama?

Why should they care about Murchison? For a bunch of wazungu (most visitors we met there were Europeans) to come to see edible animals roaming around freely? Some of the same animals that once populated Europe and they vanished mercilessly? There were lions in Southern Europe and Greece until 100 AD. Should we keep parks for visitors to admire the woods locals crave for to cook a meal?

These are tough questions… and until we find sensible answers all these national parks will be under siege, by necessity and poverty, and by multinational greed.

It all turns more dramatic when tougher questions are asked. Will the local neighbours benefit in any way from the revenues generated by oil exploitation? What will be left in Murchison after 20 years apart from poverty and misery? A destroyed forest, a depleted fauna and a polluted Nile?

Running dry

We are facing similar dramas in Kenya. The Mau Forest measures approximately 46,278 hectares. Mau is home to a wide range of biodiversity and it is also a water catchment area which is running dry because of the evident decline in forest cover.

The government has ordered the eviction of more than 10,000 illegal squatters for genuine environmental reasons. But these evictions have been poorly planned or executed. Inhumane treatment and disorganisation have given local leaders plenty of mileage as they insult and wage war against the government.

If the evictions are not properly done, a permanent platoon of heavily armed guards will have to be permanently deployed to keep Mau out of reach.

Dominic Nyaga is a brilliant and engaged law student. We shared our recent environmental experiences. He argues that the emotive and largely politicised evictions of illegal squatters from the Mau Forest sustains the hope for the restoration of critical water towers which have been degraded. The forest calls for the reclamation and liberation from the current encroachment.

He also agrees that the usual problem is poor planning and execution. Compensation in cash will be drank by men, and leave women and children with no hope and no home. The government needs to find better ways to compensate and/or relocate these Mau squatters.

It remains clear that pressure on wildlife will continue for as long as life in the wild remains so neglected. To save a park or a forest requires more than just armed guards and threats. It requires a constant and careful care for the whole ecosystem, including human needs, standards and benefits derived by neighbours from the existence of the park or forest.

Prof Luis Franceschi
Founding Dean – Strathmore Law School
[email protected]