KENYA: Focus on forest excisions
Source: Copyright 2002, IRINnews
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
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: http://www.globalresponse.org/
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
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 http://www.globalresponse.org/gra_index/gra0102.html].
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
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