News 2008


Poll chaos threat to survival of key water source

Daily Nation

11. March 2008

Hundreds of families have illegally invaded Mau Forest, posing grave danger to the environment and wildlife, writes KEN OPALA

Conflicts do not just destabilise human lives. The environment also suffers when mobs take advantage of a breakdown in law and order to invade forests and plunder other natural resources.

January was a particularly bad month for the 400,000-ha Mau Complex, one of the key water sources in Kenya. Taking advatage of the post-election violence, hordes of people invaded the forest and hived off land for themselves. Others cut down the threatened Podo tree species to burn charcoal.

Conservationists who have mapped the extent of the destruction have warned that the forest could be destroyed by invaders. “There has been trouble there over the last two months,” says Mr D.S. Mbugua, the director of Kenya Forest Services. He is worried by the human encroachment of three of Mau Complex’s 12 forests – South West Mau, Trans Mara, ol Pusimoru and Maasai Mau. According to him, the situation is serious.

A man whose house was burnt down during ethnic violence in the Mau forest. Photos/STEPHEN MUDIARI and FILE

The post-election violence displaced numerous Forest Department workers from Narok and Trans Mara districts. “There were raiders inside the forest. (The remaining) staff were overwhelmed. In fact because of the eviction of some ethnic communities, a number of the forest stations were unmanned,” says Mr Mbugua.

Raid the forest

The lapse created an opportunity for groups of people to raid the forest either for wood or farm land.

An aerial survey of Mau Complex carried out last January stunned Kenya’s conservation fraternity. “The western side of Maasai Mau Forest is heavily settled,” says Mr Michael Gachanjah, coordinator of Kenya Forest Working Group, which brings together parastatals such as the Kenya Forest Services and the Kenya Wildlife Service among other conservation groups. “They are clearing trees to create farms, even as they mine the Podo.”

Authorities are yet to quantify the loss. But conservationists are talking about “serious” encroachment on a key component of the environment which is not just an ordinary forest.

Mau is the largest remaining canopy forest block in eastern Africa. It is the catchment for all rivers that drain west of Lake Victoria except one. Rivers like Nzoia, Yala, Nyando, Sondu and Mara originate in the complex. That side, the Mau is also a key catchment for critical lakes and wetlands in the Rift Valley, such as Baringo, Nakuru, Naivasha, Natron and Turkana.

The forest is critical to the livelihoods of thousands of people in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, and Egypt.

Even the Kenya Wildlife Service is also concerned about the sad happenings in Mau. This nature component has unique trees and wildlife which KWS is keen to protect, says Amanda Koech, a communications officer at the institution.

Apart from the 450 species of birds the forest hosts, it is the home of the Bongo and the yellow-backed Duiker, leopard, elephants, giant forest hogs, colobus monkeys, gazelles, hartebeest and giraffes. Other mammals include lions, hyenas, buffaloes and hippos.

Maasai Mau Forest stole the headlines in May-June 2005 when the then Lands minister Amos Kimunya (now Finance minister) used State authority to evict 10,290 “encroachers”, some who claimed to own title deeds. It emerged that the titles were irregularly acquired. (Any allocation of forest land must be preceded by an elaborate legal process).

The Narok County Council, under whose jurisdiction part of the forest falls, had never passed a resolution to give out the forestland. “All allocations in the forest are therefore illegal and all title deeds are null and void,” said the Maasai Mau Forest Status Report of 2005, a study by UN Environment Programme, the Kenya Forest Working Group, KWS and Ewaso Ng’iro South Development Authority.

The Government’s promise to resettle the encroachers is yet to be honoured. And conservationists are worried that those evicted may be taking advantage of the current political crisis to return to the forest.

Encroachment in the forest has been gradual. The Maasai Mau Forest Status Report 2005 has detailed the yearly loss of forestland over the last three decades. For instance, between 2003-2005 an average of 1,755 ha were hived off every year, down from 11 hectares a year between 1986 and 1995. Thus, in just three years (2003-2005), Mau lost 3,510 ha of woodland compared to the 110 ha lost in ten years (1986-95).

The loss of woodland in the surrounding areas was even greater. According the report, about 11,095 ha of the western part of the Maasai Mau Forest had been converted into settlements by 2005.

“The encroachment has been going on for a while,” says Mr Gachanjah. “But it picked up after the disputed elections.”

The aerial survey revealed settlements on the lower boundaries of the east block of Maasai Mau, logging of indigenous trees (mostly Podo) along the Enkare Sikinder River, fields of crops (an indication of farming within the forest), and “fully established settlements on the south western part of Maasai Mau forest.

Ol Pusimoru, a forest protected by the law, was not spared either. “Settlements in the south west corner of the forest are growing,” says a report produced by the team after the survey.

“If not addressed promptly, (the encroachment) will led to a total clear felling of the forest in the area which... will lead to a total destruction of the forest corridor connecting the Maasai Mau/Ol Pusimoru block with the South West Mau/Transmara block.”

The team has urged the provincial administration, together with the Kenya Forest Service, to stop further destruction of this key component of the environment. It also asked the Government “to settle elsewhere the 1,962 people with titles” evicted in 2005. Squatters should be also be evicted.

Reinforce security

“There has been laxity in resettling these people,” says Mr Gachanjah.

Already, the Kenya Forest Service has asked KWS to help reinforce security in the Maasai Mau Forest. Ms Koech says that although the two parastatals have been working closely “it is KFS that will give the final direction” on how to end the destruction.

Whereas KFS is a newly created parastatal with inadequate funding, KWS has been in operation for close to 20 years. Its paramilitary wing is well-equipped and for many years, it enjoyed the support of key donors. In fact, there has been debate over whether KWS should take over the management all indigenous forests in the country.

Mr Mbugua, the KFS director, say: “Now that sanity has returned, we will act.”