Kenya's rulers clear way for
drought and disaster by felling forest
Independent, The (London), Jan 16, 2002 by Declan Walsh in Mau
FEARS OF an environmental disaster are growing in Kenya because
President Daniel arap Moi's government is pushing ahead with plans
to clear vast areas of forest before elections later this year.
The government says it needs 167,000 acres to settle squatters.
But opponents say the scheme is merely a ploy to buy political
They warn that the notoriously corrupt regime will stop at nothing
to win the poll, even if it means damaging the tea and tourism
industries and threatening millions of ordinary Kenyans with
drought. "They will go to any length to hold on to power. There is
no other explanation," said Professor Wangarai Maathai, a leading
On the edge of the Mau Forest - a key area already eroded by
illegal logging - Francis Kimani, a farm labourer, shook his head
as trucks laden with freshly cut trees trundled by. "This is what
we call wanton destruction," he said. "If these people keep
cutting, we feel our country is going to run dry."
Kenya has a critical shortage of tree cover. According to experts,
at least 10 per cent of the land needs the cover to ensure a
reliable water supply. While neighbouring Tanzania has 36 per cent,
Kenya has 1.7 per cent.
A severe drought last year brought the country to its knees. Four
million people became dependent on food aid as reservoirs emptied,
causing severe water and electricity rationing. The vanishing
forest cover was an important factor.
Michael Gachanja of the Kenya Forests Working Group said: "If this
excision goes ahead, we can expect to see even worse situations in
Kenya's problem is that it relies on a handful of "water towers" -
areas of highland forest that sponge up rainfall in the wet season,
then release it slowly in dry times. But the government wants to
chop down 15 per cent of the largest "tower", the Mau Forest.
If past experience is anything to go by, critics say, the
allocations of land will favour the country's elite. Two years ago
one of President Moi's daughters was named as a beneficiary of a
proposed excision on the edge of Nairobi's most exclusive
neighbourhood. Last October Nicholas Biwott, a cabinet minister,
acquired a 1,000-acre site inside Kaptaget forest. He said it was
to build a memorial to his mother.
And there is a tribal dimension. Large parts of the Mau Forest
have already been cleared since the Nineties, when the government
settled more than 3,000 families from the Ogiek, a tribe in
President Moi's ethnic grouping. The excisions are the work of the
"cannibal elite" according to John Githongo of Transparency
International, a group that monitors corruption and which rates
Kenya as the world's fourth most corrupt country. "Land is the
number one patronage resource left," he said.
Angry activists have vowed to block the 167,000-acre excision,
which they say is senseless and immoral. A variety of court
challenges has failed or been delayed. One case was thrown out on
a technicality. A second was delayed for six months because,
officials said, case papers were lost. The hearing is now due next
Most Kenyans are preoccupied by poverty not the environment, but
they can see the link between the two. Daniel Rono said the water
supply on his new farm in the Mau had become erratic.
"During the dry periods we have to go to the other side," he said,
pointing to a distant, still-wooded area. "We wish they had left
some trees. The forest attracts rain."
Big business is also worried. Tea farmers, who bring in precious
foreign exchange, are concerned that fewer trees will mean less
water, bigger temperature swings and ultimately withering tea
"We've had two severe droughts over the last five years, and
recently frost which we never saw before. We can only assume the
depletion of natural resources is impacting on rainfall," said
Hugo Douglas Dufresne of African Highland Produce, one of Kenya's
largest tea growers.
Tourism could also be compromised. The web of rivers that springs
from the Mau runs into Lake Nakuru, famous for its flamingos, and
across the plains of the Masai Mara, Africa's most renowned game
reserve. Animal populations in both areas would suffer from
erratic river flows.
Copyright 2002 Independent Newspapers UK Limited
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