Tag Archives: Mau Forest Complex

Local People Saving The Mau

Two or so weeks ago – 15 January to be exact – Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who has been unwavering in his quest to save the Mau Forest, led a large delegation of government officials to Kaptunga Forest in the Mau Forest Complex to launch the governments Mau Forest Restoration programme. A large crowd of local people – as would be expected – turned up to cheer him on in this endeavor that has bred discord from within Mr Odinga’s political party. The rehabilitation of the Mau Forest, and the eviction of illegal settlers inside East Africa’s largest forest bloc has been controversial and Mr Odinga’s Orange Democratic Party has suffered some seemingly ideological splits between those who support eviction and those who oppose the eviction.

But, as the politics of the Mau heated up at Kaptunga, I was in another village a few kilometres away from where the Prime Minister was planting trees. I was with a group of Ogiek people – a hunter gatherer indegenous community that has lived in the Mau for thousands of years – planting trees. I was there by invitation from Dr Mukuria Mwangi who has started an on-farm tree planting innitiative as a contribution to the restoration of the Mau Forest – and blogs at Mau-Mandala. We were latter to go to the political rally that followed the prime minister’s tree planting launch at Kaptunga.

I got to talk with Dr Mukuria and the local people about the project and  how they are going to make it work. I recorded some of our discussions on video.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/Ovh3wBHmoBQ" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

The Pain of Saving the Mau Forest Complex

Kenya just recently went through the most devastating drought in decades. It is believed that in some parts of the country, this drought was made worse by forest destruction and the resultant drying of rivers. The most dramatic case of rivers drying was experienced in the areas which source their water from the Mau Forest Complex. The Mau is the largest continuous forest area in East Africa and is the source of many rivers including the Mara River, which runs through, and is the lifeline, of Kenya’s most celebrated wildlife conservation area – the Masai Mara National Reserve.

Map of Mau in Kenya
The Mau Complex in Kenya (Map: BBC News)

For years, the Mau has suffered severe destruction as land hungry Kenyans invade the forest, sometimes with government consent and fraudulently issued legal land ownership documents. According to the BBC “During the past 15 years, more than 100,000 hectares – one quarter of the protected forest reserve – had been settled and cleared.” About 20,000 families had settled in the forest.

In the last few years, the government has been working on the removal of these illegal settlers from this forest complex which is the largest of the country’s 5 most important ‘water towers’. Now it seems that the government is succeeding, but it has not been – as usual -without its fair share of politics. Of course, where voters are concerned, the politicians will take sides depending on which block of the electorate they want to align themselves with.

That said, the first batch of illegal settlers started leaving the forest a couple of days ago. This, in environmental terms is good as the government has promissed to plant 100-million trees to replace those felled by the settlers. It is a good start but it will definitely take decades before the rivers of the Mau can once again flow as they did before the 1990s.

This eviction however introduces a sad humanitarian crisis since many of the evictees have nowhere else to go. Many have resigned to a life of squalor on the outskirts of the forest, along major roads. The government says it has plans to resettle those who are genuinely homeless in the same fashion it is assisting the IDPs who resulted from the violent fallout from the disputed 2007 presidential elections. We however know how these things work.

To really know how the government is likely to deal with this huge humanitarian burden, you just need to reflect back to the case of evictees that came from the Mount Kenya Forest. This particular group had been living in the forest when the colonial government demarcated the forest reserve in 1950. In 1989 however, they were evicted after they started encroaching further into the forest. Since then, they stayed by the roadside until July 2009 when they were allocated land in Laikipia area north of Mount Kenya. They had been on the roadside for 20 years.

Is the eviction of 20,000 humans out of the forest a good thing? I would say yes. They need to get out so that the work of rehabilitating the forest can start in earnest. But, the government should act with haste to find alternative agricultural land to settle these people so that they can once again engage in economic activities that help in building the nation.

Evictees cannot be allowed to go back to the Mau. That would make matters worse. They should not be relocated to another protected area. There are still large tracts of land owned by a few rich Kenyans. Such land is lying idle and underutilized despite the fact that it is in prime agricultural areas. The government should force these greedy landowners to sell this land and use it to settle the landless.

The Politics of the Mau Complex

The power struggles that have characterized the intended eviction of illegal – and perceived legal – squatters from the Mau Complex in Kenya are now degenerating into some really nasty verbal offensives between politicians. On Tuesday, 23 September the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, the Standard and other media reported that the Mau complex was threatening the unity of the ODM Party. The Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) is Kenya’s Prime Minister’s party and has a majority in parliament.

The Mau, one of Kenya’s most important water catchments has been invaded by up to 15,000 families whose eviction – even with the nationwide acceptance that they have to leave – has proved to be extremely challenging for the government. Some of them do indeed have genuine land title deeds. Notwithstanding how fraudulently they acquired them, these are legal government documents that cannot just be wished away. That is why the squatters have stayed put. They say they will only move out when they are compensated for the land they own inside the Mau. They don’t want money, they want land: alternative land.

Now the urgency of evicting these families is creeping in on every Kenyan, and the politicians know this. Politicians being politicians, they see an opportunity to score some career mileage. They are now using the Mau saga – or more so the poor who were sold the land that should not have been sold in the first place – to muscle up their political ambitions. If the event of this Tuesday are anything to go by, then we are in for a lengthy soap opera with a tragic end. Not the happily ever after kind.

Tuesday’s media reports of the emerging cracks in ODM are based on a chain of events that were set into motion by their leader, Prime Minister Raila Odinga when he announced that the squatters have to leave. The situation got worse when Raila, now increasingly getting frustrated by the politicisation of the Mau debacle publicly threatened to name and shame former Kenya African National Union (KANU) stalwarts who he purports are the main beneficiaries of the irregular allocations of land inside the Mau. Most of the remnants of this once powerful party – especially those who stuck with it towards the end of former President Daniel arap Moi’s regime in the late 1990s are now in ODM and they were not amused by the Prime Minister’s uttering.

KANU ruled this country since independence in 1963 until it was dislodged from power during the 2002 euphoric general elections by the then newly formed National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) party. Towards the end of its authoritarian rule, KANU was blamed for having dragged this country through murky decades of economic plunder and stifled democracy. They are said to have acquired colossal swathes of land and Raila believes that, in the same manner, they own most of the Mau land in question.

The situation is so bad such that the Member of Parliament (MP) for Chepalungu Constituency in the expansive Rift Valley Province (where the Mau is located), Honourable Isaac Ruto, is actively campaigning for a candidate from a rival party to ODM for the comming by-elections that were necessitated by the death of a couple of MPs. Isaac was elected to parliament on an ODM ticket. He accuses the Prime Minister of betraying the people who enabled him get to power. Isaac Ruto’s brother, Hounorable Willam Ruto, is credited for having delivered the Rift Valley voting block that sealed the ODM’s parliamentary majority at the end of the hotly contested 2007 general elections in Kenya. Both were former KANU men.

To say that anyone can fully understand the complicated politics that are eating the Mau would be too ambitious. One columnist in the Standard has tried to explain the problem here. I don’t seek to understand these shenanigans. I seek only to see the squatters relocated away from this vital water tower in the most humane manner. The genuine squatters, especially the poor farmers who were duped into buying the land, should be given land elsewhere and immediate forest restoration should start – today. I wonder what will happen to the traditional hunter gatherer minority – the Ogiek – who’ve lived in that forest for eons.

Without the Mau – for example – the Masai Mara will not be the same. The Mara River will not flow. Maybe the wildebeest will stop their annual migration to the Mara and back to Serengeti in Tanzania. Maybe northern Serengeti will die. Maybe.