News 2008


ALERT: Kenya may resettle IDPs in tea belts encroaching on last forests



Thursday 6 March 2008

Plans by the Kenya government to settle internally displaced people (IDPs) in state owned tea belts next to the country’s main natural forests are raising fears of a major environmental catastrophe.

Environmentalists fear that the move if implemented will impact negatively on two of the country’s main forests, the Aberdares and Mt Kenya, which are the main sources of water in the Kenya.

The forests being tropical in nature are also seen as major carbon sink and sieve for purifying air beyond the country, besides hosting some of the richest flora and fauna on the continent.

These forests are hosting a wide variety of wildlife with two game reserves and are a major magnet for rains in the Kenyan highlands of central Kenya, which supplies most of the food to the country.

Confidential government reports indicate that authorities here plan to settle thousands of displaced members of the Kikuyu community on the slopes of the two forests currently covered by thousands of hectares of state owned tea plantations called the Nyayo Tea Zones, established by former president Arap Moi in the 1980s.

Those to be settled there, include - according to leaks - those that have vowed never to move back to the rift valley where they were evicted by Kalenjin militias and those whose homes are too close to those of their rivals to the extent that their safety cannot be guaranteed.

Thousands who left their ancestral homes in central Kenya in the early 1920s have vowed never to return to the rift valley, saying that recurrent tribal clashes every five years since 1991 were too costly.

But being densely populated, the Kikuyu dominated region in central Kenya has hardly any land left for the settlement of such families, which is why informed sources speak of the decision by the Kibaki government to settle the families on the tea zones located on the edges of the two remaining large forests.

The tea belts, however, must be seen as an important buffer between peasants and the all important forests preventing unhindered access to the forests by locals, who usually engage in disastrous activities such as illegal logging and killing of wildlife.

Conservationists are blaming the Kibaki government of taking environmental issues lightly, of failing to tackle the ghost of the Kenya land question directly and not confronting the political crisis gripping the country by not providing a sustainable solution to the question of thousands of displaced Kikuyu.

They reason that the tea belts ringing the two forest reserves would after all not accommodate every displaced in need of land, but would basically be a death knell for the precious resource.

Furthermore, they argue, that local communities who have lived next to the forest reserves then may as well want a share of the land, to which they had never access since the colonial days, and further conflict may arise.

The tea zones, environmentalists argue have the effect of stopping the erosion of the fertile red soil of the central Kenya highlands and also serve to sustain the forests as critical water catchments.

“The way out of this IDP question lies in a political settlement to the current stalemate and a critical look at the way Kenya has shared out her wealth, resources and power amongst her people” says 2004 Nobel laureate Prof. Wangari Maathai.

“ Half measures will only give a temporary settlement to the land question in Kenya, a radical and deliberate review of our constitution would be a help to settle the whole question of land tenure and ownership in Kenya” she adds.

The mere thought that IDPs be settled on forest edges is raising serious concerns in many.

“The whole idea is misguided and a cruel sentence to our forest reserves, these people will have unlimited access to natural forests in pursuit of dwindling resources” said Joseph Kanyanya of Kenya Forest Working Group.

“ It would be condemning the forests to death, people will be cutting down trees for building material and firewood while at the same they will start hunting wildlife for meat - we will be finished “ he emphasizes.

The two forests still hold many indigenous trees - hundreds of years of age - including the precious Meru Oak and Camphor - both highly valued for their quality wood in furniture making and building .

Illegal felling of these two precious forest tree species forced the government many times with support of donors to spend millions of dollars in protecting the species for posterity.

Kenya’s now improving elephant numbers would also be at risk from poachers in pursuit of quick riches for ivory.

The country’s biggest river Tan that flows all the way to the Indian ocean has Mt Kenya as it’s source and feeds two dams in lower Tana that produce half of the country’s electricity power.

Moreover Tana river supports thousands of acres of irrigation schemes in Tana River District not to mention the many small users of her water resources up stream .

In total no less than three rivers have their source in Mt Kenya that supply water to millions in Central and Eastern Kenya regions. The case is the same for the Aberdares valued as the only water source for the capital Nairobi.

The settlement of IDPs near these forests would only worsen matters, since even growers of Bangh (cannabis sativa) have targeted them in the past, destroying thousands of hectares and forcing authorities to put them under armed patrols of the Kenya Wildlife Service guards .

Charity bodies have spent billions putting a near 1,000 km long electric fence around the Aberdares to secure the forests from poachers and other encroachment.

The Kibaki government has promised to resettle more than 350,000 IDPs who are victims of the post election violence and rebuild their burnt houses as well.

(editing: Ecoterra Intl.)