Archive 2003


Monday, November 3, 2003

Forests: Were Leakey's Men the Target?


KENYA's Environment and Natural Resources Minister Dr Newton Kulundu has denied allegations that the suspension of more than 829 forest officers less than a fortnight ago targeted staff perceived to be allied to the former head of the civil service and wildlife conservationist, Dr Richard Leakey.

Dr Kulundu told The EastAfrican last week that the exercise was intended solely to save the country's forests and not, as is being widely alleged, to replace senior officials, including the chief conservator of forests, Gideon Gathaara, who are known to work closely with conservationists allied to Dr Leakey.

The minister, who made no specific allegation against Mr Gathaara, denied personalising the suspensions. "We did not merely go for Mr Gathaara. We went for the entire lot as we could not continue to see forests being decimated while they did nothing though they were in charge," he said.

Mr Gathara, who initially worked for the Kenya Wildlife Service as a forest programme co-ordinator, is credited with exposing senior officials in the former government who were behind the grabbing of Karura forest. He is also said to have played a key role in exposing the destruction of Mt Kenya forests when he authored findings on its first aerial survey in 1989. 

But his undoing, The EastAfrican has established, was his affiliation to Dr Leakey, who was seen to have been behind his appointment as chief conservatoir of forests on May 8, 2002. Initially, the post had been offered to George Ochieng, who now works as a deputy secretary in the Environment Ministry. Mr Ochieng was interviewed and appointed to the post by the Public Service Commission in May 2002. But after one week in office, he was replaced by Mr Gathaara in unclear circumstances. 

Sources in the Environment Ministry say Dr Kulundu has been uncomfortable with officers in both KWS and in the main ministry who are perceived to be in the "Leakey camp." This has been going on since May, when the Environment Minister had a bitter public exchange with Dr Leakey over what the minister saw as the latter's moves to establish a $400 million Environment Endowment Fund "behind the government's back".

To counter allegations that the suspensions were related to this feud, Dr Kulundu revealed that, with help from National Security Intelligence Service officers and information volunteered by members of the public through hotlines set up early this year, the ministry had compiled a list of the misdeeds that each of the sacked foresters had committed. "For instance, in Kaptagat, Kakamega and Mt Elgon forests, we established that, in cahoots with illegal loggers, certain foresters had gone to the extent of setting up saw mills deep inside these forests."

Despite this, sources say that the suspensions were done without the knowledge of Assistant Minister Prof Wangari Maathai. Reports say that Prof Maathai, who has maintained a low profile for months, has been sidelined by Dr Kulundu because she is opposed to the manner in which he has been handling the contentious issue of the proposed titanium mining in Kwale.

The EastAfrican has established that Dr Kulundu effected the suspensions, which have been referred to as "retrenchment through the backdoor" by the civil servants union, after an outcry that he was not doing enough to stem the destruction being wrought by illegal loggers with the covert backing of senior foresters.

"No one disputes the need for the minister to reform the forestry sector, but the action taken was too drastic," said a source at the Kenya Forestry Working Group who declined to be named. He added that the minister's action leaves forestry resources in greater danger than before as district security teams "may be worse than foresters and are not equipped with necessary conservation ethics."

But Dr Kulundu said that the government had put in place effective mechanisms to protect forests in the absence of the foresters. "It would be foolhardy for any member of the provincial administration to attempt any dealings in forest products."

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    Often one can only detect the timberthiefs 

     from the air.