For over a decade, debate has raged around the heavy destruction of the Mau Forest complex in the Rift Valley and the need to conserve it. And although some semblance of unanimity at times emerges on the need for conservation, its execution has, regrettably, remained a polarising and vexing issue.
Worse, the matter has been allowed to take a political turn with the resultant rhetoric undermining efforts to save East Africa’s largest indigenous forest that is the source of many rivers that support millions of lives and livelihoods in the region.
The first significant revelations of the heavy destruction and plunder were contained in the “Report of the Prime Minister’s Task Force on the Conservation of the Mau Forest Complex” released in March 2009. According to it, the extensive degradation was a result of encroachment, excision and illegal extraction of forest resources.
The report termed that as a major threat to water resources, biodiversity and livelihoods of forest-dependent communities and the region’s population in general and warned that if allowed to continue, it would lead to conflicts over these resources and land.
The team went ahead to make a raft of recommendations to not only stop the destruction of the complex, but also set in motion efforts to avert further depredation, reclaim the destroyed portions and restore the forest cover. But that is as far is it went. Politics, poor coordination and lack of commitment from State agencies mandated to spearhead the initiative ensured it became stillborn.
A decade later, the Mau issue is still a political hot potato. During elections, it becomes a rallying point for vote-seeking politicians, whose propaganda generates animosity and undermines efforts to conserve the Mau Forest Complex.
Promises to communities living in the forest that they would be provided with alternative land to settle in once they move out of the complex to pave the way for conservation are discarded as soon as the dust over the elections has settled.
This, precisely, is the difficulty Environment Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko is grappling with as he attempts to unravel the Mau Forest conundrum and push through the conservation agenda.
Kenyans must now face the reality that the Mau Forest issue is one that cannot be left to politicians to play around with. The Mau is about their lives and those of millions of others not only in East Africa, but all the way along the River Nile basin to the Mediterranean.
The CS must be supported in his bid to save Mau Forest and ensure it is protected for posterity.