News 2008


The Complications of the Mau Complex


Aug 22 2008

For years now, the controversy of whether or not to evict squatters in the Mau Forest Complex in southwestern Kenya has been played by politicians to their own gain. The problem at the Mau has survived four general (parliamentary and presidential) elections so far, and it doesn’t seem to be going away.

Allow me to introduce you to the largest, near-continuous montane forest block in East Africa before I tell you what the problem is (or is thought to be). The Mau is huge and critically important to the three East African states of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. The forests cloak the western slopes, and part of the crest, of the Mau Escarpment, a block of raised land that forms the western wall of the Gregory Rift Valley, rising steeply from the floor and sloping away more gradually to the west. There are five main Forest Reserves: Eastern, Western and South-western Mau (c.66,000, 22,700 and 84,000 ha respectively), Trans-Mara (34,400 ha) and Ol Pusimoru (17,200 ha).

A sixth large block, the Maasai Mau (c.46,000 ha) is as yet ungazetted. In early 2001, a total of 59,134 ha (35,301 in Eastern Mau, 22,797 ha in South-western Mau, 713 ha in Western May and 1,030 ha in Western Mau) was designated for degazettement meaning it would be removed from protection status and left to the dogs.

Now here is the problem. Since the ill advised forest excisions of the late 1990s (to settle landless people), thousands of people have invaded the forest and laid waste to large swathes of especially the eastern Mau. The government led resettlement is said to have brought some 28,000 households into the eastern Mau. This settlement of agricultural communities also opened up the forest to a large racket of illegal logging that has contributed to the loss of about 28% of forest cover in the eastern sector (cumulative since 1967).

The 28,000 may not be removed since they are there “legally” and so the target for eviction is those considered “illegal squarters”. Attempts to remove these aliens have had casualties in government and politics. President Kibaki’s attempt to remove them during his first term - about three years ago - cost him the constitutional referendum that was seeking to usher in a new constitution for Kenyans. Then in December 2007 when Kenyans voted - in what was to turn into the bloodiest election ever - Kibaki’s opponents used the Mau again to make him unpopular. Lots of lesser politicians have fallen and others gained political favour because of the Mau.

The Mau problems are multifaceted. There is the obvious environmental degradation concern, there is also a community face whereby the Kipsigis (who are majority squarters) claim that they bought their land in the Mau and the Maasai who an ancestral claim to the Mau. The community card is the politicians pet and has been used to divide these two communities in an annoyingly predictable patterns. There is also the Ogiek, who are thought to be the indegenous people of the forest and are traditionally hunter-gatherers. The Ogiek are a minority and were evicted from the forest in the 1980s

Due to the immense importance of the Mau as a one the five most important “water towers” in Kenya, there are economical ramifications to consider. The Mau issue have never - in the public eye - been seen as an environmental issue, but recently, as it increasingly becomes clear that environmental degradation has economic repercussions, the environmental aspect has begun to get noticed.

Picture this: Numerous streams originate from the forests west of the scarp crest, forming part of the Sondu and Mara river systems, which flow into Lake Victoria, and the Southern Ewaso Ngiro system, which flows into Lake Natron. The Eastern Mau is the main watershed for Lake Nakuru, through the Njoro, Makalia and Enderit rivers. Take the out the Mara River alone and you don’t have the Masai Mara (as we know it) and parts of the Serengeti, northern Tanzania. That is bad for the multi-billion tourism industry in Kenya and Tanzania.

The Mau complex has complex problems and the political tug-of-wars are not helping. If we dont stop the destruction of the Mau, millions of people will suffer. Only several thousand people have invaded the Mau, but millions downstream will suffer the consequences.

Recently, the Kenya’s Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, announced the formation of a Task Force to chart a way forward in the removal of the squatters. It consists of some high profile conservationists together with the usual political puppets. We hope the environmentalists will prevail and a people-friendly and environmentally sound formula is found to remove the squatters.

One thing is clear, and the Mr Odinga said it: there are no two ways of saving the Mau. The only way to save the Mau is to remove those folk from the forest and protect it against illegal logging.

I will keep an eye open to see what the Task Force comes up with.

To learn more about the Mau there are several links:

1. A Birdlife Perspective

2. Mau in the News

3. More news on the Mau

There is also a community group that is trying to save the Mau and see also the story of the Ogiek

You can also download a report done by the UNEP about the destruction of the Mau **here** ( PDF)