Fence off Mau and address threat
to other water towers
Published on 28/07/2008
By Wangari Maathai
I have been following recent discussion on the Mau Forest with
concern, partly because some of us have been raising alarm over
forests for decades with little success.
The reason for the failure is that those charged with protecting
forests have been the major enemy.
Logging, charcoal burning, human settlements, grazing, bhang
growing and the shamba system (now baptised the Plantation
Establishment and Livelihood Improvement Scheme) are destructive
activities in indigenous forests, which also serve as our water
catchments areas. None of them can go on without the knowledge and
approval of foresters.
However, and with much respect for those who are honest,
transparent, committed and honourable, greed and corruption have
been responsible for the destruction of our forests.
The ongoing discussions can be expressed over the rest of the
forested mountains (namely Mt Kenya, Mt Elgon, the Aberdare ranges
and the Cherangani hills). The five, our primary water towers, are
all under threat from human settlement, cultivation, charcoal
burning, poaching, bhang growing, grazing and commercial farming
of exotic tree species.
Kenya is a water-scarce country, currently facing drought and crop
failure. This is compounded by the fact that thousands of farmers
in the country’s bread-basket, the Rift Valley, were unable to
plant due to the post-election political violence. The country is
facing food shortages. If she wishes to save herself, Kenya has to
save her five water towers.
The Mau Forest is one of the biggest water catchment areas in the
region and the largest single indigenous forest in Kenya. Twelve
major rivers and five lakes, including Lake Nakuru, owe their
existence to it. It is, therefore, understandable that we are
focused on the Mau.
But we ought to focus on all five. Anything to the contrary is
suicidal in a country whose economy is largely rural and dependent
on agriculture and tourism (Activities in the Masai Mara and the
Serengeti in Tanzania depend on the Mara River, whose source is
the Mau Forest).
Long before the Japanese government suggested that it would build
a hydro-power project across the Sondu and Miriu rivers,
environmentalists drew attention to the fact that destructive
activities in the Mau would undermine the project.
This was because such activities would destroy the forest and
undermine its capacity to supply water. For years the call from
environmentalists to protect the forest fell on deaf ears as
politicians moved in to settle ‘their people’ and acquire land for
People settle in forests in the hope that when the Government
catches up with them, it will either have to carve out part of
that forestland, give it to them and even issue title deeds, or,
if it evicts them, give them alternative land to settle in.
This has been Kenyans’ way of forcing the Government to part with
forest-land and allow human settlement. In some areas (for example
in parts of Mt Kenya forest), the ruling elite encroach on
forestland in the name of the poor but once the Government
concedes, most of the land is scooped by the elite. The poor are
left landless or may be given small pieces to keep them silent.
The postponement of the inauguration of the Sh12 billion
Sondu-Miriu project due to low water levels was a wake up call.
Kenyans should be grateful that PM Raila Odinga and Environment
Minister John Michuki are trying to rectify the consequences of
bad governance in the past.
Fencing in the 400,000-hectare Mau forest, 25 per cent of which
has been destroyed, is an expensive undertaking but it may be the
only way the forest can be saved and rehabilitated. Fencing should
also be accompanied with removal of PELIS (the shamba system)
because once some people — including so-called hunters and
gatherers who no longer live in harmony with nature — are allowed
in, there is no way those with destructive intentions can be kept
The benefits of fencing off the forest, removing all cultivators
and, with them, criminal activities, have been experienced in the
Aberdare forest, where these were done by the Narc Government. We
must do the same for the Mau forest.