News 2008


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 themselves.

Forest-land extortion

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 out.

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.