Archive 2002


KENYA: Focus on forest excisions

Source: Copyright 2002, IRINnews Africa
Date: March 29, 2002

NAIROBI, - Environmental activists in Kenya are going to court to challenge a decision by President Daniel arap Moi's government to de-gazette some 4 percent of the country's remaining forests. They say the excision will result in a devastating impact on the country's fragile ecosystems.

The government announced in October 2001 it was planning to excise some 70,000 hectares (170,000 acres) as part of its programme to resettle landless people. The decision outraged environmental groups in Kenya, which were subsequently joined in their response by international conservation groups such as Survival International and Global Response.

A resulting coalition of such organisations, led by the Kenya Forests Working Group (KFWG), then began to lobby the Kenyan government for it to reconsider the decision. The KFWG issued an ultimatum giving Environment Minister Joseph Kamotho up to the 19 April to revoke the de-gazettement, failing which the lobby group would file a suit in court to halt the excisions.

The group has argued the main beneficiaries of the excisions would largely be politically favoured people and loggers. "The government is the trustee of the Kenyan public. But by de-gazetting forests the government was not acting in the interest of the public," Michael Gachanja, who heads KFWG, told IRIN on Wednesday.

Lumumba Odenda, the coordinator of the Kenya Land Alliance (KLA) told IRIN on Tuesday there was still a lot of government land other than that under forests which could be allocated to landless people - also known as squatters.

Gazzetted land comes under Kenyan government control, and is legally protected. Once an area is de-gazzetted the land is no longer afforded legal protection and can be disposed of by the government to private individuals and companies, after which they are free to use it as they see fit, according to experts.

"The government is cutting [down] forests for reasons which are selfish," he told IRIN from Nakuru, where his nongovernmental organisation (NGO) is based. "Squatters are just being used as an excuse, but the land is being used to buy political patronage. We know all forest excisions in Kenyan history have never benefited the so-called landless people." Odenda went on to say that much of the forest land proposed for excision had already been shared out years before its de-gazettement, and mostly in secret.

Three logging companies - the Pan African Paper Mills, Raiply Timber and Timsales Ltd - are clearing the newly opened forest tracts, according to Global Response, an international environmental action and education network. [see also: ]

In an article dated 21 January, the independent Daily Nation newspaper said that allocations for the proposed de-gazetted land had already been made some decades ago by many government officials, including the commissioner of lands, the chief conservator of forests and even the provincial administration.

"The clearance was touted as a scheme to provide land for Kenya's landless poor, but now documents leaked to the Kenyan Daily Nation show that the real beneficiaries are President Moi and other members of the political elite," Survival International, an NGO which defends the rights of tribal peoples around the world, said in a statement released on 11 February.

Kenya is classified among countries affected by chronic water scarcity in both its urban and rural areas, with between 75 and 85 percent of its land arid or semiarid, notably in the north and east, according to experts.

Less than 2 percent of Kenya’s total land surface is now under forest cover - far below the international standard, which requires countries to maintain as forests at least 10 percent of their land, experts say.

Some recent extreme climatic phenomena, including severe drought from 1998 to 2000, have been partially attributed to the country's disappearing forest cover. The drying up of rivers, from which Kenya derives much of its hydroelectricity, necessitated the imposition of power rationing during that period.

Forests in Kenya are also home to a number of indigenous peoples that live by hunting and gathering.

One forest which stands to be affected by de-gazettement plans is the Mau forest, central Kenya, one of the country's main water catchment areas. It is on access to this mountainous forest that the Ogiek, an indigenous community, depend for their survival. Numbering about 20,000, the Ogiek constitute one of Kenya's smallest tribes, well known as hunter-gatherers and producers of honey from beehives, which they place high in the branches of trees.

The Ogiek have protested against the government's plan, and in June 1997 took their protests to court. "The settlement of other people in our midst would mean that the Ogiek culture would cease. We will be wiped out," Joseph Towett, the chairman of the Ogiek Welfare Council, said in a an appeal posted on the community's behalf on the Global Response website [see].

However, in March 2000, the high court in Nairobi rejected their case and approved their eviction from the Mau forest. "The eviction is for the purposes of saving the whole Kenya from a possible environmental disaster, and it is being carried out for the common good within statutory powers," said the judges, Samuel Oguk and Richard Kuloba, according to a report on the group submitted by Rights Features and posted on the community's website

The Ogiek group has since appealed against the decision, and their case is currently under consideration by the Kenyan courts. "The Ogiek, who never damaged the forest, have been evicted from it time and again, while the powerful are allowed to take it over and destroy the natural heritage of these people," Stephen Corry, the director of Survival International, said in the 11 February statement.

The laws currently in force include many loopholes, which give the environment minister and commissioner of lands powers to excise or allocate forest land, and it is these anomalies which are to blame for the excessive deforestation in Kenya, according Imre Loefler, the head of the Nairobi-based East African Wildlife Society.

Under the current law, the minister can de-gazette "at whim", provided that he first gazettes a notice of his intention and invites objections. The law does not, however, compel him to heed the objections, according to Loefler.

"This law is a real ass: the minister is not obliged to listen to the objections, he does not even have to read them, and there is no evidence at hand that any minister in the past 30 years has even so much as acknowledged receipt of an objection," he said in an article published the 11-17 February edition of the East African.

There is also a political side to the problem of deforestation in Kenya, according to Loefler. "After the 1992 general elections, the queue of reward seekers was so long and the resources available so meagre that suddenly whole forests had to be sacrificed," he said. "By this time, the rules were being ignored as a matter of course."

A bill was drafted in 1997 to seal these legal loopholes by creating, among other things, provisions to include indigenous communities as protectors of forests. It has, however, remained with the cabinet, and has not been taken to parliament for debate, according to Odenda.

Besides violating the rights of indigenous people, the forest excision contravenes international agreements, including the African Convention on Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Ramsar Convention, and the Convention for the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, according to environment experts.

The decision by the government to de-gazette more forest land prompted the Action for Endangered Species conservation group to withdraw an environmental award that Kenya was to have received last year for its stand against the global ivory trade during the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which took place in Nairobi in 2000, according to Global Response.

The British high commissioner to Kenya, Edward Clay, recently also joined the fray, saying that the consequences of forest destruction in Kenya were a "global issue". "We have an interest in the way other countries look at the environment. Its protection is very important," Clay was quoted by the Daily Nation as saying on 25 January.

Kenya's forest controversy has been raging against the backdrop of the UN forum on forests, which held its second session on deforestation from 4 to 15 March at UN headquarters in New York. The session, which brings together government representatives from around the world, focused on global efforts to promote sustainable forest management, and reviewed current trends and practices to increase the political commitment of countries to forest issues.

Led by KFWG, Kenyan environmental lobby groups have launched what they call a broad-based campaign, entitled "Forests: When they are gone, they are gone", to persuade the government to rescind the de-gazettement. Besides appealing to the government to reconsider its decision, the KFWG and the Green Belt Movement, led by outspoken academic Wangari Maathi, have together amassed at least 200,000 signatures on petitions opposing the excisions.

Kamotho, meanwhile, has assured Kenyans that the government would reclaim land and increase the acreage under forests by some 620,000 hectares. "We have a lot of hue and cry about forest destruction and devastation of the environment in general. We are focused and will try to address this issue and reclaim land lost in the past," the Daily Nation quoted him as saying on 25 January.