Forest evictions bring about mixed reactions. Some people tend to look at the eviction from one angle, of the social wellbeing of those being evicted, and ignore the ecological benefits it will bring in the future.
In Kenya, conservation matters have more often than not been overlooked. Forests are being destroyed as most people ignore the impact that it has on the environment and how it affects us all.
Conservation matters have largely been politicised. The Mau Forest, for example, has been in the limelight for a couple of weeks following the directive by the Cabinet secretary for Environment to commence the second phase of eviction of squatters. Most politicians have been vocal in insisting that the “mwananchi” will suffer. Some insist that occupants of a part of Mau should be spared as it is not a forest.
The Maasai Mau is the most-threatened of the 22 blocks in the complex covering some 46,278 hectares. Some of the threats in the block include human encroachment, poor agricultural practices.
Just like most forests, Mau has numerous ecosystem benefits ranging from soil erosion control, carbon sequestration, microclimate regulation and being a habitat for the biodiversity.
It also acts as a water catchment area, regulating river flow, recharging ground water and water purification. It is one of the major water catchment areas in the country.
The forest has been destroyed for years and it is time for action to safeguard it. One of the most vital initiatives to allow conservation of the forest is evicting the squatters, who encroached on the forest land for settlement and agricultural activities, before irreversible changes occur.
The eviction comes at a time when the world is calling upon nations to come up with strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere to curb climate change.
The destruction and encroachment of Mau has led to the decrease in water volumes and drying up of rivers whose origin is the forest. Mara River, for example, has its origin from the forest and, together with the ecosystems, support wildlife in the Maasai Mara National Park.
The social impact of the exercise cannot be overlooked. Some families that were fully dependent on the forest may suffer following the eviction. Vulnerable groups such as children, women, the elderly and people with disabilities could suffer the most.
However, unless the eviction is concluded, encroachment on the forest will continue. As the human population in the forest increases, there will be a need for more settlement and agricultural space. More forest land will be cleared, leading to its degradation.
Conserving the forest is the best way to protect the water tower for the current and future generations. Sustainability of the forest is dependent on the ability to manage and conserve it for it to provide the ecosystem services and products.
The efforts by the government to evict the squatters are commendable and should be embraced by everyone as we all seek to benefit from the initiative either directly or indirectly.
Action should be taken against the people who sold the land to unsuspecting Kenyans who just wanted to make a decent living.
There is also a need to create awareness on forests and the role they play in combating climate change. Sensitisation will help to educate the public and help to reduce conflicts and such incidents. Documented forest areas should be fenced and rehabilitated.
Government agencies such as Kenya Forest Services (KFS) should work with local communities to ensure that forests are well managed and conserved.
Politicians should cease playing politics with matters environment and conservation. They should, instead, unite and help in educating and sensitising the local people on conservation matters, urging them to work with the government to protect and conserve natural resources. Policies and legislations on conservation should be implemented.
Talks on the encroachment on Mau Forest have been held for decades and it is time for action. Evicting the encroachers and rehabilitating the forest is the first step towards restoring the water tower and increasing the country’s tree cover. It will ensure that the rivers and springs from the forest are recharged, increasing their volumes.
The biodiversity in the forest will flourish as more seek habitat in the forest. The microclimatic condition around Mau and the country will change with time as the trees help to absorb more carbon from the atmosphere.
People who depend on natural resources such as forests are directly affected by the impact of their destruction. The time to save the Mau is now.
Ms Njane is an assistant to the CEO, Forestry Society of Kenya. [email protected]