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Save the Mau complex now or face extinction

Sunday April 5 2009

By RASNA WARAH

A NATIONAL ENVIRONMENtal crisis is brewing, yet all our politicians can do is make capital out of it. In March, Prime Minister Raila Odinga was quoted as saying that he did not wish to upset voters by evicting people from the Mau Forest.

This statement came barely eight months after he announced to the world that widespread encroachments had led to the destruction of nearly a quarter of the Mau complex area, and that this state of affairs constituted “a national emergency”.

He further claimed that the government was taking steps to combat the destruction of the Mau Forest, which necessarily entailed evicting settlers and preventing further encroachment.

Although attempts have been made by human rights groups and others to prevent evictions of hunter-gatherer groups, such as the Ogiek, from the Mau Forest on the grounds that such evictions violated these groups’ right to life and shelter, I believe there are times when the interests of the wider public should take precedence over the interests of a minority.

Evictions are sometimes necessary if they are for the greater good – as long as they are carried out legally and include resettlement of affected communities to places where they are not denied a livelihood.

In May 2007, for instance, Amnesty International released a briefing paper that called on the government to stop evictions of communities from forests.

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While no one should condone evictions that result in loss of property and livelihoods, and where no fair compensation is given to the affected families, the problem with this appeal was that it assumed that the Ogiek are better off living in a forest without the benefits of modern life.

Besides, the Ogiek might have the “right” to live in one of Kenya’s most important forests, but this right is seriously trampling on the rights of all Kenyans, whose right to food and water is being severely affected by deforestation.

A recent study by the Kenya Forests Working Group and the UN Environment Programme estimates that water from the Mau Forest complex alone serves an estimated three million people in Kenya and Tanzania, and that the loss of this vital resource could severely affect the ecosystem and sectors such as energy, tourism (particularly in the Maasai Mara), agriculture and water supply.

Kenya’s forests have been under threat for more than a 100 years. Forest cover in the country has diminished rapidly, from 30 per cent of the total land mass in 1895 to just 1.7 per cent today.

THE COLONIAL ADMINISTRATION IS responsible for the bulk of the deforestation (forest cover at independence had shrunk to just three per cent of the total land mass), but post-colonial governments share some of the blame. Irregular allocation of forest land during the Moi and Kenyatta regimes led to the grabbing of gazetted forests.

According to the Ndung’u Commission report, some parts of the Mau Forest complex were ostensibly cleared to settle the Ogiek community – which claims traditional rights over the forest – but strangely, the main beneficiaries of land allocations ended up being prominent individuals and companies.

In some cases, forest land was sold to unsuspecting people who had no idea that the forest was protected. Aerial surveys show that nearly 40 per cent of the officially gazetted forest has been illegally excised; further encroachment could mean that Kenya could lose one of its most valuable “water towers” within the next few years.

Why is it that environmental concerns, particularly those related to the Mau Forest, have not led to swift action on the part of government authorities?

The underlying problem, according to various reports, is the government’s failure to deal with forest destruction in a systematic way, leading to a situation where thousands of poor families are evicted from their small plots, while prominent individuals involved in the illegal allocation of the forest have not been subjected to investigation or prosecution.

The Ndung’u report has recommended that all titles to forest land acquired illegally should be revoked, and that the land should be repossessed and restored to their original purpose. Let us hope he acts on these findings immediately – failure to do so will mean more drought, reduced access to clean water and diminishing economic output for present and future generations.

If saving the Mau means evicting and resettling people, then so be it. Once this is done, the forest should be fenced off to prevent future encroachment.

Ms Warah is an editor with the UN. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations. ([email protected])

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