Kenya’s five main forests — Mount Kenya, Aberdare Ranges, Mau Complex, Mount Elgon and Cherangani Hills — all important water towers, have been destroyed by deforestation, drought, forest fires and other destructors.
Over the years, the government has evicted illegal settlers to pave the way for forest regeneration and re-establishment. Sadly, that has not been smooth — hampered, in part, by issues related to autochthony, forest ownership, geopolitics, sociopolitics sand the rights of vulnerable and marginalised groups (VMGs).
These have, consequently, necessitated emasculation, as in the much-publicised Mau evictions of November 2009 and the Embobut ones, including in January last year, when one of the evictees died.
Evictions should be the last resort when freeing forest land from malfeasant human habitation. Use of force provides fermentation grounds for social unrest and can germinate resentment towards the government and forest conservation. It also propagates the notion that forests belong to the government, not the people.
Glaringly, the water towers have progressively grown barer after the evictions with trees and shrubs vanishing from the forests at an astounding speed.
The evictees, too, are a disconsolate lot. Their loss of wealth and livelihood, coupled with the distress of being evicted, makes them profoundly despondent.
They vent their fury on the government and the forests, leading to wanton forest destruction — ignorant of the reality that destroying the forest is tantamount to destroying their lives and that of all forest neighbours (a ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ scenario).
Although the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) has copiously been vilified for colluding with villainous loggers to expend forests, it has a duty to regrow the evacuated forests to their pre-deforestation standing, preferably with native trees.
Immense social work should go into forest evictions when they become inevitable. This necessitates sensitisation of people on the importance of forests, reprehending charlatans who derail conservation in the name of fighting for the rights of VMGs, cajoling the affected to move out peacefully, counselling targeted evictees and adequately compensating those unerringly affected.
This way, evictees will not be embittered and will help in conserving the forests.
Secondly, more subtle means of integrated forest use and conservation should be sought. These should be all-inclusive and preserving to human life and dignity.
They include productive forest livelihood options, which can engender nature-based enterprises, sericulture, silviculture, fruit farming, sheep farming and rabbit rearing.
Insect farming, such as bee-keeping and silk worm and butterfly farming, will rake in money for the farmers and maintain a rich forest cover.
Tree farming can also be taken up by forest neighbours as an economic venture and to satisfy wood needs. Fruit farming will enhance vegetation cover, improve the environment and earn money for the growers. Encourage zero grazing to curb the menace created by livestock that lodge and board in the forests or roam across counties.
There is a need for political and social goodwill in the eviction of illegal forest settlers and also in forest conservation.
Dr Kipkiror, an environmental consultant, is a lecturer at the University of Kabianga’s School of Arts and Social Sciences. [email protected]