Archive 2003

 

Thousands of Acres of Forest Land in Private Hands

Otieno Otieno

With many irregular land allocations already unearthed by the new government, there are fears that thousands of acres of public forest land could be in private hands.

Few of such allocations were sanctioned by relevant authorities through excision orders but many more are not reflected in official government records. The land in question is suspected to have been lost in a scheme in which some senior forest officers took advantage of ministerial excision orders to hive off and sell huge chunks of forest land to individuals and private developers.

The scheme, which affected various forests in the country, saw thousands of acres of land curved out in excess of the areas degazetted by the minister.

According to the Forest Act (Cap 385), the Minister for Environment and Natural Resources is required to formalise an excision order and its details through a legal notice published in the Kenya Gazette. In one such rip-off, Mau forest alone lost more than 50,000 acres in 2001. Former Environment and Natural Resources Minister Joseph Kamotho said the order had been issued before he took over from Francis Nyenze early last year.

"It is true the government had authorised some portions, about 3,000 acres to be excised for settling members of the Ogiek community. But government officers took advantage and excised more than 50, 000 acres. The additional land ended up being allocated to individuals," said the former minister in an interview with this writer just minutes before he was sacked.

The revelation meant that much more forest land was actually lost last year in the controversial degazettement of 167,000 acres of forest land by Nyenze.

An independent aerial survey conducted by the Kenya Forest Working Group soon after Nyenze's order, captured expansive areas where trees had been cleared much earlier. Apart from the crucial Mau Forest located in Rift Valley Province, 12 other forests - Mount Kenya, Aberdare, Marmanet, Kapsaret, Tinderet, Nabkoi, Nakuru, Molo, Londiani and Nandi - were affected.

The former government remained adamant in spite of the pressure mounted to have the order withdrawn by local and international environmental lobby groups.

Two separate cases to recover the 167 acres are pending in court. The first suit, lodged by the Kenya Alliance of Resident Associations, East African Wildlife Society, Environmental Liaison Centre and the Law Society of Kenya, secured a High Court judge's temporary order stopping the excisions in April last year.
A second suit filed on similar grounds by the Green Belt Movement, the Forest Action Network, the National Council of Churches of Kenya and the Kenya Human Rights Commission is also yet to be determined.
During the intense debate on the government action, renowned environmentalist and Co-ordinator of the Green Belt Movement Prof Wangari Maathai had come out as one of the strongest voices against the excisions.

But Prof Maathai, currently an Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife in the new government, is yet to revisit the issue.

Kamotho concurred with environmental experts that loopholes in the current national forest policy is largely responsible for Kenya's shrinking forest cover. The Forest Act confers on the Minister for Environment and Natural Resources arbitrary powers to excise or degazette chunks of public forest land for various purposes, including human settlement and urban development.

But in the recent past, say environmental lobbyists, the real motives behind excisions have been to grab and dish out public land to politically-connected individuals. The situation is made worse by the fact that the minister's decisions are not subject to any strict vetting procedure by Parliament or other independent authority.

In the interview on the eve of the World Summit for Sustainable Development held in South Africa in August last year, Kamotho said such loopholes had been exploited in the past to order for unwarranted excisions.
"The problem is that most decisions have been made haphazardly," he said. In a sharp contradiction with his predecessor's position that the excisions were done to settle landless Kenyans, he dismissed them as not "absolutely necessary". Prof Maathai's Green Belt Movement unearthed another plot in which government officers would deliberately settle "squatters" on forest land to facilitate grabbing by individuals. The practice was common in Aberdare and other forests in Central Provice. Without consulting the Ministry of Lands and Settlement to confirm their status, a group of people would be moved in from unknown areas to establish temporary residential structures in the forest.

But new "owners" would arrive in the company of surveyors with beacons to demarcate the land. Meanwhile the "squatters" would be either evicted or relocated to another section of the forest to prepare the way for other grabbers. In Kieni and Getare forests, there are reports of commercial transactions involving forest officers and squatters.

Some of the squatters in the forests are displaced families who lost their land in the infamous 1992 tribal clashes in the Rift Valley. Under the shamba system, the government initially settled them there on the understanding that they would clear parts of the forest for farming purposes and in turn replant trees. The terms entailed a small fee paid to the Forest Department for maintenance. Entries on receipts obtained from some squatters in Kieni indicated that it cost Sh400 to rent a parcel of land. Grazing levies ranged between Sh15 for each small livestock and Sh40 for cattle or donkeys.

However, independent investigations by the Green Belt Movement showed that government officers were selling each parcel for more than Sh3,000. The organisation linked a District Officer to the business and demanded disciplinary action against him. The shamba or Tongya system, which ideally seeks to involve landless communities in forest conservation, has been steeped in controversy in Kenya for a long time now. Before it was recently re-introduced under strange circumstances, the government banned the practice from public forests.

Besides being open to abuse, critics blame it on the replacement of indigenous tree species with exotic ones. The most common exotic species planted in public forests include eucalyptus and cypress - which researchers say reduce the water catchment qualities of the forests. Furthermore, the more artificial ecosystems have intefered with their once rich biodiversity. The new Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife Minister, Dr Newton Kulundu, began a crackdown on corrupt forest officers immediately he took over in January this year.

But lasting solutions to the problem, say environmentalists, lie in a comprehensive forest policy to protect the natural resources. The new Forest Bill, currently pending in Parliament, has been repeatedly hailed as a good piece of legislation. It denies the Minister, for instance, powers to issue unilateral excision orders. Wide consultations beginning from the District Environmental Committe to Parliament provide a sufficient vetting mechanism against unnecessary excisions.

The East African Standard (Nairobi), March 10, 2003

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