Saving the Mau – Kenyas heart is bleeding

A recent report by BBC reporter James Morgan on the impact of the destruction of Kenya’s Mau Forest has been making waves in Kenya. This well researched article highlights the causes of the forest destruction (bad policies), and it’s impacts (rivers, farming, climate and conflict). The current Kenya Government is trying to undo the damage caused by the previous regime and rich cronies  – ironically these people starting with the former president who have destroyed a national asset and caused untold suffering in the short and long term, will actually be compensated in cash. This policy of rewarding wrong doers has angered Kenyans intensely and the situation on the ground is very volatile.

High in the hills of Kenya’s Mau forest, some 20,000 families are facing eviction from their farms – accused of contributing to an ecological disaster which has crippled the country.

Mau Forest Kenya

The authorities are to start the process of removing them any day now. Farmers will be asked to surrender their title deeds for inspection.

If their documents are genuine, they have a chance of being resettled, or compensated.

If not, they will simply be told to go.

Mau forest is Kenya’s largest water tower – it stores rain during the wet seasons and pumps it out during the dry months.

But during the last 15 years, more than 100,000 hectares – one quarter of the protected forest reserve – have been settled and cleared.

Tearing out the trees at the heart of Kenya has triggered a cascade of drought and despair in the surrounding valleys.

The rivers that flow from the forest are drying up.

And as they disappear, so too have Kenya’s harvests, its cattle farms, its hydro-electricity, its tea industry, its lakes and even its famous wildlife parks.

The finger of blame is being pointed at the settlers in Mau. And the solution, according to a special task force appointed by Prime Minister Raila Odinga, is to uproot the invaders and replant the trees.

Of 20,000 families living in the forest, they estimate that perhaps as few as 1,962 have genuine title deeds.

Civil conflict

“We must act now – before the entire ecosystem is irreversibly damaged,” said Mr Odinga.

“We are looking at securing the livelihoods and economies of millions of Africans who directly and indirectly depend on the ecosystem.”

The prime minister was speaking at the United Nations – appealing for donations of 7.6bn shillings ($100m; £63.5m) to “rehabilitate” Kenya’s water supply.

If he does not act, he foresees a struggle for water and land which could escalate into a bloody civil conflict.

Because in the valleys downstream of Mau forest, farmers like Peter Ole Nkolia are running out of water, cattle, and patience.

“Those people up there need to just move,” says Mr Nkolia, as he stands by the carcass of a dead cow.

“If the destruction of Mau shall continue I can assure you that a lot of people will suffer.

“What you are going to see here in Narok is just the skeletons of cattle – and maybe people.”


Mau forest kenya

Worse still, the water from Mau quenches thirst far beyond Kenya. Its rivers feed Tanzania’s Serengeti and keep the fishermen of Lake Victoria afloat.

When you consider that Lake Victoria is the source of the Nile, you begin to grasp the scale of the crisis the Kenyan government is facing.

“This is no longer a Kenyan problem,” said Mr Odinga. “Tanzania and Egypt are feeling the heat from the Mau.

“And the implications go beyond the environment. This has the potential to create insecurity as people squabble over dwindling resources.”

‘Buffer zone’

Chopping down the tree cover in Mau has removed a natural “pump” which keeps the ecosystem alive.

“It rains a lot in Kenya – but only in the rainy seasons. Then you have four long months with not a drop,” explains Christian Lambrechts, from the Nairobi-based UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

“So you need a buffer zone – a way to ration the rain water and release it slowly into the rivers in the dry season. That buffer is the forest.

“If you remove this ecosystem, you reduce the moisture reservoir. Which means that in the dry season… ‘Hakuna maji’. No water.”

When the rains in Kenya stop falling, the 12 rivers which stem from the Mau forest are the lifeline for about 10 million people.

And this year in Kenya, the rains failed badly.

Narok county – the breadbasket of Kenya – was a barren dustbowl in April, the wettest month of the year. The government declared a “national emergency” with 10 million Kenyans facing starvation.

Cattle keeled over and died, in their millions. And as the drought worsened, Kenyan government was forced to bail out farmers by slaughtering their weak animals for just 8,000 shillings ($105; £65) a head.

In western Kenya, the tea plantations of James Finlay, which feed on the rivers of western Mau, have seen their yields cut to 80%. And the town of Kericho experienced water rationing for the first time in a generation.

Trouble in paradise

Wildlife tourism – another pillar of Kenya’s economy – is wilting in the heat.

Lake Nakuru, the birdwatcher’s paradise, is disappearing. The rivers that feed it have run dry. They come from Mau.

Mau forest lake Nakuru

And in the Masai Mara, the river which hosts the world famous “crossing of the wildebeest” has fallen to its lowest ever level.

Water scarcity has brought wild animals and farmers into conflict. Deaths, injuries and compensation claims are at record highs in Narok, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

The fuse for all these disasters was lit in Mau.

“The Mau, in a sense, is the hen that lays the golden eggs,” says Paul Udoto, of KWS.

“The eggs are Lake Nakuru, the Masai Mara, the tea plantations… the farming that is being done by pastoralists.

“Once you destroy the centre – the hen – that is the Mau – then by necessity you have to lose the golden eggs.”

Frequent droughts

But can deforestation really be to blame for all these catastrophes?

After all, there have always been cyclical droughts in Kenya.

The trouble is that these droughts are becoming more frequent, more severe and less predictable. Particularly since 2001 – the year when 60,000 hectares of Mau were allocated to settlers and cleared.

“At a time when the climate in Kenya is becoming drier, that is when you need to boost your ecosystem – to help it to absorb the impact of climate variability,” says Mr Lambrechts.

“Go in the opposite direction, and you are going to feel those impacts much bigger. That is what we are currently feeling.”

Mr Lambrechts is one of 30 officials recruited to the task force by Prime Minister Odinga.

Their report, published in July, set out in painstaking detail how more than 100,000 hectares – one quarter of the entire forest reserve – was parcelled up and cleared for settlement.

Almost 20,000 land parcels were “excised” by the governments of Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki, and handed out to farmers – which helped to boost the two presidents’ popularity in the run-up to elections.

At the time, much of these excised land parcels were promised to Ogiek peoples, the original forest dwellers. But the title deeds ended up largely in the hands of local officials and incoming settlers.

 Mau forest kenya

Map showing three types of settlement within the Mau forest reserve: (i) Land excised and allocated to settlers by government (ii) Trust land which was adjudicated to indigenous forest peoples (iii) Land which was encroached or illegally purchased

Meanwhile, in the southern Maasai Mau forest, almost 2,000 plots were illegally purchased within the protected forest reserve, with the help of local officials.

Plots known as “group ranches” were expanded, subdivided and then sold on to third parties, unaware that their new title deeds may be “irregular” or “bogus”.

Finally, large chunks of the forest were simply occupied and squatted – “encroached” to use the official terminology – by settlers with no title claim whatsoever.

Political tightrope

The task force insists that almost all of these settlers and land owners should leave the forest as soon as possible.

But how many deserve compensation? This is a political tightrope for Prime Minister Odinga.

The task force has promised that each family will have their claim heard on a “case-to-case basis”.

All holders of “genuine” title deeds will be compensated – perhaps even those high-ranking public officials who are named by the task force as having received land via irregular means.

A search for new land to resettle farmers is underway, but is already provoking controversy.

“I hope when they go to the World Bank they won’t get any money,” says Professor Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Laureate and environmental campaigner.

“The only reason why we are being held hostage with the Mau is because people who were in power want to be compensated.”


But perhaps the biggest challenge of all facing Kenya is the ecological one – the co-ordinated replanting of 100,000 hectares of indigenous forest.

It will take decades to restore the canopy – years in which Kenyans will continue to suffer from the double-whammy of local land degradation and global climate change.

Yet among environmentalists there is some relief that, at last, Kenya has woken up to a disaster that has been brewing for decades.

Countless warnings have gone unheeded, as Ms Maathai can testify.

“I keep telling people, let us not cut trees irresponsibly… especially the forested mountains,” she says.

“Because if you destroy the forests, the rivers will stop flowing and the rains will become irregular and the crops will fail and you will die of hunger and starvation.

Mau Forest Kenya

“Now the problem is, people don’t make those linkages.”

In Kenya this year, everyone is making those linkages.

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  1. Posted September 29, 2009 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    I’ve been following your tweets about the situation in the Mau, but this post really lays it all out. Incredible. The map of excised forest is shocking, as is the scheme to compensate those who raped the forest and caused all this suffering! Please keep us informed on how this progresses.


  2. Rebecca, Australia
    Posted September 29, 2009 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    I just read this article at BBC.
    Startling stuff, but if you look back on the web you’ll see that this has been talked about for many years.

    It seems that it is not until a disaster that the government really wakes up and starts listening to the experts – this could have been averted if only the deforestation stopped years ago as was recommended by many experts.

  3. Anna M
    Posted September 30, 2009 at 2:49 am | Permalink

    I saw this article yesterday morning together with another one about Oxfam starting an emergency food aid campaign here in the UK destined for the horn of Africa, startling how much both are linked, one can’t underestimate the impact of deforestations around the world and looking at Kenya and the reality that is starring them in the face, they can’t afford to loose an inch more of their forests… Very good that this was posted on WLD and please let the Kenyan goverment wake up to the facts that are known…

  4. Bryan Adkins
    Posted September 30, 2009 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    I read this on BBC yesterday and I have to say it sickens me to see our country suffer so. Greed and corruption have caused so much destruction that our children will have to bear the brunt of this for many years, if not generations to come.
    At the heart of the matter is the corruption, by powerful and influential mid-level politicians, who have flogged the land off on poor peasants who are now being portrayed as the perpetrators. While the poor farmers in Mau do have a part to play, as well as some blame to bear (see below), the politicians need to be brought to justice if we are to avert this type of disaster in the future. As this is an international issue now, affecting Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan and Egypt, it needs to be dealt with in that forum as clearly we in Kenya can not prosecute our own – a case in point our hesitancy to prosecute over the post election violence.

    Additionally, we should be embarrassed and outraged, just as Wangari Maathai is that our political elite are now asking for donors to pay for the restoration of Mau. I do support her in her hope that they do not get it. I would be willing to sign any proposal or petition arguing that indeed our government should pay for the restoration as it is indeed their own greed that has brought us to this point.

    We also must be willing to part with some of our tribal, cultural identities. Our culture has to be dynamic – not frozen in 1930s values. For example, our land can not support our population if we continue in the same cultural practices that our grandparents did. Our land can not support thousands of heads of cattle grazing on our limited resources. This simply can not work with our resources any longer – isn’t it the same type of greed exemplified by our leaders? We must be willing to give up some of these long held cultural norms.

    I know we can do this.

  5. savingparadise
    Posted October 1, 2009 at 1:29 am | Permalink

    I hope the government will not let the people who knowingly sold some of the settlers land within the forest go unpunished.

  6. Pirjo,Finland
    Posted October 2, 2009 at 4:05 am | Permalink

    The biggest problem is that the decision making politicians worldwide are still only looking out for their own interests and how to secure enough votes to win the next election.Politicians have a very short time line and don’t seem to care what happens in the future. We are facing a global ecological crisis, which won’t be solved by people who hold the power of decision making in their hands. Group of weak and spineless politicians won’t be able to solve the disaster ahead, but it’s normal people around the world, which has to stand up and put pressure on their governments if we want to see the change. Western politicians aren’t much better than their African collegues. It looks like everybody is waiting some miracle to happen, or that somebody else will take care of the problem of the climate change and it’s devastating effects on ecosystems,wildlife and humans.

  7. melchizedek
    Posted October 22, 2009 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    This is avery complex yet crucial environmental issue now affecting communities beyond our boarders.the ecosystem is at stake,tourism and loss of biodiversity cradle .
    It pains me to see the political blindness of our elites especially govt who have invaded and awarded the mau to their communities due to tribal politics.the mau belongs to all of us,lets support government efforts.i urge all good meaning environmentalists to put forth environmental ethics and advocate for serious environmental management.
    As i carry out my masters of science research thesis on climate change and the mau crisis.i urge all to push for practical solutions to conserving our environment for the good of all.

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