Saving Kenya’s Mau forest

Posted on Monday, 21 September 2009 15:58

Evictions of residents from what were once protected forests

will help the environment but will also fuel the ethnic rivalry running

through Kenya’s politics.

An Ogiek herdsman, Cosmas Bonoso, barely 20 years old, was nursing his donkey back to its feet at the edge of the Enapuyiapuy swamp, a few kilometres into the Kiptunga forest boundary in Nakuru district. He had been there for some time, but the donkey stubbornly refused to get up. It was dying of thirst.

“The swamp began drying up in February last year,” Bonoso recalled. “Now it is completely dry, except for that little puddle over there,” he said, gesturing towards a small dark green patch on an endless terrain of wheat-brown heath stretching to the horizon.

Stopping the destruction

The Mau Forest’s destruction
brings grim environmental
conse quences.

Read more

All around, the effects of a year-long drought and four failed rainy seasons were showing. An old pump-house built before independence stood on a slight elevation at the edge of the swamp. It had long been abandoned. The canals emerging from the swamp were completely dry. Water drained from Enapuyiapuy to join other streams that then became the Mara River (lifeline of the Maasai Mara National Reserve), the Nderit River, which had once fed Lake Nakuru (source of water for a million people in the central Rift Valley) and others that fed Lake Victoria. The canals are now dry. Locals claimed that elephants had once sunk without trace in this swamp. Now sheep grazed across it, unafraid. “When that puddle dries up, I don’t know what we are going to do,” said Bonoso.

Fighting fire with fire?

About a kilometre to the east was clear evidence of one of the causes of the swamp’s shrinkage: a clearing the size of about five football fields that was full of burned tree stumps.

Last December, a series of forest fires swept through the Mau complex. Investigations soon established that the fires, far from being accidental, had been the work of arsonists. This happened a few months after prime minister Raila Odinga had set up a special task force to look into the destruction of the forests and to recommend solutions for their conservation. While it was never established whether the arsonists were working in concert, it was hardly in doubt that they were driven by a growing fear among the thousands of settlers who had encroached on forestlands that the government would soon evict them.

The arrival of settlers in the Mau complex began at least eight years ago when former President Daniel arap Moi’s Kenya African National Union (KANU) government announced its intention to cut off 10% of the protected lands for the resettlement of landless Rift Valley residents, specifically victims of the ethnic clashes of the 1990s, as well as members of the minority Ogiek community who claim the Mau forest as their ancestral home.

When environmental rights activists and experts protested, and obtained injunctions from the High Court blocking the government’s action, Moi’s environment minister Francis Nyenze ignored the court orders. He claimed that the excisions were a fait accompli since much of the forest land in question was already occupied.

This year’s task force report demolishes Moi’s claims. “Less than 50% of those forestlands were occupied,” says a task force insider. “At least 99% of all title deeds in the excision areas were irregularly obtained.”?

The Moi government’s endorsement of illegality set the tone for the subsequent struggle over the area. Rights activists sought judicial and parliamentary orders preventing the Moi government from continuing with its action, but a massive movement into the forests was already taking place. Having received a political wink from the KANU government, thousands of people cleared trees and built homes. It is now apparent that the resettlement programme was an elaborate excuse to reward Moi’s cronies while ensuring grassroots political support within his Kalenjin community.

The list of key beneficiaries reads like a roll-call of Moi’s inner-circle, featuring politicians, businessmen and presidential relatives. Many of them, including Moi’s son, Gideon, and his former security boss, Zakayo Cheruiyot, have denied owning land in the Mau forest even though their names were recently tabled in parliament among the list of beneficiaries. Others, like Moi’s nephew, Hosea Kiplagat, who owns 300 acres of Mau land, have insisted that they obtained the lands via lawful presidential fiat. Moi himself was a major beneficiary of the forest excisions, obtaining close to 1,000 acres of land initially meant as a settlement scheme for the landless, on which he has developed a tea estate.

This year’s task force recommendation that all settlers now be evicted from the Mau complex has sparked controversy within the coalition government and inside the Raila Odinga-led Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), itself an ethnic coalition of Rift Valley and west Kenyan communities. Backed by President Mwai Kibaki, Odinga went ahead and announced in June that evictions of settlers would be undertaken before November. Beleaguered Kalenjin politicians led by Odinga’s deputy, William Ruto, have fiercely resisted the eviction calls, regarding them as an attack on the community. In early September, Odinga set up a Mau Secretariat within his office, that promptly launched an appeal for $400m to conserve the forest.

Stung by Odinga’s stand, Ruto has threatened to walk out of the ODM unless the Mau settlers are adequately compensated for their lands before they are evicted. The stand-off has complicated what is an already fragile partnership within ODM. Odinga’s endorsement last year of the Waki Report on the post-election violence, which recommended that perpetrators of the post-poll violence be tried with international oversight, was seen as a betrayal of the Kalenjin, who were widely considered to have conducted much of the violence against Kibaki’s Kikuyu community.

Forest evictions are not new to Kenya. Communities were evicted from their ancestral lands in the colonial era. Most were rendered landless, and the independence governments botched land resettlement. The ruling elite of the Jomo Kenyatta era had favoured the Kikuyu for land resettlement, especially in the Rift Valley. Ancestral claims for lands lost during the colonial era were regularly ignored.

Cat and mouse?

Key Dates

1998-2004 ?In the last days of President
Daniel Arap Moi’s

rule, thousands of people,
mainly from Moi’s Kalenjin ethnic group,

illegally resettled in the Mau Forest Complex ??

2001? There is a public

outcry after the
government announces its intention to excise
up to

10%, or 150,000 acres, of the country’s gazetted
forests. Despite a

high court injunction obtained
by NGOs, the government carries out the


June 2005? On 11 June, government forces evict
an estimated

10,000 people, mostly Kalenjin,
from the Maasai Mau forest, razing

houses, schools,
churches and a township. Kalenjin politicians


October 2005? President Mwai Kibaki dishes out
12,000 title

deeds of forest lands in the Mau forest
to the minority Ogiek

community. He quietly
allows those evicted from the Maasai Mau to

to the forest ??

June 2009? A task force commissioned to? recommend

ways of restoring the Mau forest hands its report to
prime minister

Raila Odinga. At least three major
lakes whose feeder rivers rise from

the Mau forest
are reportedly in advanced stages of drying up

During the land clashes of the 1990s that characterised the politics of the multiparty era, thousands of Kikuyu and non-Kalenjin groups assumed to be hostile to Moi had been evicted from the Rift Valley when lands were taken over largely by Moi’s Kalenjin elite. From then on, there was a mass of landless people in the Rift Valley and elsewhere. Many of them played a cat-and-mouse game with the government, secretly encroaching on gazetted government forests for a season and being periodically evicted when they were discovered.

But it was the 2005 eviction of 10,000 settlers that typifies how incendiary the politics of the Mau had become. It seemed residents had been given fake title deeds in an effort to ensure safe passage for Moi’s political elite once they had lost power and that the encroachment of the Mau forest complex was the endgame of Moi’s transition politics, intended to play out long into the future.

At that time, another story began to emerge. The settlers had genuinely bought parcels of land in the forest. The land had been sold to them mainly through a Maasai political family. In what appeared to be an attempt to import new voters to prop up their uncertain political fortunes, members of the Narok family had colluded with councillors at the Narok County Council and officials of ranches bordering the Maasai Mau forest. Using private land surveyors, ranch officials had dramatically exaggerated the sizes of the ranches so that they encroached deep into the forest, and sold off the ‘new’ lands. It was the environmental equivalent of the Goldenberg financial scandal that had cost the Kenyan taxpayer over $1bn in the 1990s. Like the Goldenberg scandal in which fictitious gold was exported with the beneficiaries making millions of dollars from a generous export compensation package, in the Maasai Mau forest, lands that did not exist were made by encroaching on the forest.

The fall-out from the 2005 Maasai Mau forest evictions has had unintended political consequences. Kalenjin politicians regarded the evictions as a vicious affront against their community. During the November 2005 referendum on a new constitution, they voted overwhelmingly against the Kibaki government. Despite the President’s belated efforts to woo them back in the run-up to the referendum by dishing out 12,000 parcels in the Mau complex and allowing those evicted from the Maasai Mau to return, the Kalenjin roundly rejected Kibaki’s overtures, both then and during the December 2007 presidential elections. Then, in Raila Odinga, there was a new enemy.

Half an hour east from the swamp, in the small township of Ol Posimuru, which sits high in the Mau forest, a group of Maasai elders were mobilising the community to demonstrate. The aim, they said, was to forcibly evict Kalenjin settlers who had been in the Maasai Mau forest – the southernmost block of the 22 forests that comprise the Mau complex – for the better part of a decade. “If the government cannot move them, we are prepared to evict them ourselves,” said one of them. “Our livestock are dying because the rivers have all dried up.” ?Among the list of beneficiaries of the sale of the Maasai Mau forest are many of the leading members of Maasai society in Narok – businessmen, politicians, professionals and bureaucrats. Today, as the district reels from one of the worst droughts in living memory, as wheat harvests fall and livestock die, there is an air of resignation in the town and the talk is all about money and the lack of it. While many talk about invading the forest to evict the settlers, there is silence about who sold the forest in the first place.

Dreams evaporate?

The Narok County Council insists that it never resolved to excise the Maasai Mau forest. Privately, however, many councillors admit that they were allocated land and sold it off to third parties, mostly to the Kipsigis.

William Rotich, a retired insurance salesman who had bought 60 acres in the Maasai Mau, thought that he could start a new life. There were new schools being built and his wife had become an active member of the new church. Just months before, he had collected his first harvest of maize, but then the government invaded the forest and destroyed his plans. At no point did he feel that he was encroaching on forest land. He called the forest a “settlement area”.

“Look at me, do I look like a squatter?” he asked. “I am educated. I worked for a big company. I did not have to come here. It was a good opportunity. Now I have nothing. I am living like an animal by the roadside.”

Nobody has been arrested for the sale of the Maasai Mau forest. And as politicians rant and rage, it is likely that whatever the settlement, it will only serve to protect the guilty politicians in Nairobi.

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