Decades of efforts to restore the Mau Forest complex have yielded mixed results and disrupted the lives of thousands of families with mothers, children and the elderly bearing the brunt of evictions from the forest.
Another innocent victim has been the indigenous Ogiek community, who have been perennially evicted from their ancestral land with little or no compensation, yet they have harmoniously coexisted with this natural resource since time immemorial.
The government’s effort to provide easy access to education and health services to the Ogiek is laudable despite the occasional disruption of their traditional lifestyle. In a judgment on May 26, 2017 on a suit by the community, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights ordered corrective steps against the violations of their rights.
The wanton plunder of the forest is evidence of cover-ups and failed policies. Yet the perpetrators have been quick to blame the “squatters”, despite allocating trust land to individuals who later sold it to unsuspecting buyers — ordinary citizens without the wherewithal to engage in huge commercial activities such as timber harvesting.
Law enforcement agencies do not require a battalion of soldiers to catch the real culprits of the plunder. An acknowledgment of systemic mishaps will pave the way for dialogue to ensure long-term commitment to protect the water tower.
The focus should be on the ‘original sin’ rather than punitive acts meted out on the hapless, innocent victims of deceit.
The Mau issue is laden with historical injustices. The first admission should be the issuance of contentious ranches to some individuals that spelt the genesis of the encroachment. Greed took over and the ranches went beyond the demarcated boundaries.
Subsequent adjudication saw expansion beyond the initial lines and the land, as it became more lucrative, has since changed hands to third parties.
Years later, landowners have found themselves at a crossroads as the government declared most title deeds illegal.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), past evictions were conducted abusively and unlawfully. Children were driven out of school, elderly men rustled out of their homes in the dead of night, communities assailed with batons and gun butts, homes torched and thousands made homeless. AND These are residents born and raised in this land for nearly 40 years!
Under the law, eviction of bona fide landowners should be carried out in a humane way and with adequate compensation and/or resettlement. The task force chaired by Prof Fredrick Owino clearly justified why the peasants should be given alternative land.
The government initiated adjudication of the trust land in 1975, when 70 per cent of the current legal owners, with genuine land titles, were not yet born.
The Mau issue has been riddled with endless threats and denials. No entity wants to own up for the systemic failures — the illegal allocation of forest land, cover-ups by various commissions whose recommendations were never fully effected, inhuman evictions, the compromised rights of the Ogiek community and evident government facilitation of habitation.
The Forests Act 2005 has achieved little to ensure sustainable afforestation or undertake awareness campaigns and lacks strategic focus.
Failure to deploy effective surveillance and law enforcement against illegal logging is evinced by the huge trucks ferrying charcoal from the Mau.
Lack of sustainable alternative energy sources contributes to perpetual forest loss critical to ecological and hydrological existence of rivers downstream — like Sondu, Mara, Molo, Naishi, Makalia, Nderit and Njoro.
The solution to the contentious Mau reclamation and restoration is a win-win deal. Consider participatory approaches, community sensitisation and continuous training to spearhead progressive restoration efforts. But we must uphold human dignity, equity, social justice, inclusiveness, equality, human rights, non-discrimination and protection of the marginalised.
The government should gazette or re-gazette key areas as water catchment and compensate the poor evictees as per the law.
It is unjust and inhumane to rebuff the honest poor, whom the government aided to buy their parcels of land.
The missing piece in this impasse is to compensate and resettle Mau evictees. Dealing with the ‘original sin’ doesn’t translate to endless political jabber but is the jarring reality of the ramifications to the Mau community and our national outlook regarding the much-needed conservation and ethos enshrined in our Constitution.
Dr Barchok is the Governor of Bomet. [email protected]