It is estimated that there are 25,000 people who either legally or illegally have settled in both Mau East and Mau West forests. The Government plans to resettle them elsewhere and fence off the water tower, one of the five in the country.
Destruction of the Mau Forest. Picture source: (see below)
The Kipsigis community, the main occupants of the water-catchment area, oppose the eviction, saying they settled in the forest legally. Elders say their community is being punished by the coalition Government following their stand in the 2007 General Election. The elders have warned the Government over the evictions, saying the move was causing panic among residents, some of whom were threatening to disrupt peace.
On the other hand, Maasai community leaders say there should not be any compromise over the evictions. Maasai leaders say that the illegal extension of ranches bordering the forest in 1998 by the Narok County Council was the genesis of the threat to the water-catchment area. They say the area was allocated to powerful individuals in Government who are now opposed to the evictions.
There are fears that the Maasai and Kipisigis ethnic groups, both of whom have stakes in the Mau Forest Complex, might clash violently.
The more than 25,000 settlers, who are mainly farmers, have totally degraded and destroyed the environment to pave way for their settlement and farming. These combined activities have caused several rivers to dry up permanently.
Origins of the current situation
The encroachment and destruction of Kenya’s forests is closely related to many controversial land issues. In Kenya, as in many African countries that experienced colonisation, the issue of access to land is complex and emotive.
During colonialism, white settlers were allocated the most productive and fertile 20 per cent of Kenya’s land mass. When Kenya was declared a British Protectorate in 1895, forest cover was estimated at 30 per cent of total landmass. At independence in 1963 this figure was just 3 per cent. Following independence, there was popular expectation of increased and more equitable access to land for ordinary Kenyans.
However, post- independence governments failed to put in place a land program that met popular expectations. Instead, land was systematically used as a tool of political patronage. Huge tracts of public land were allocated to political elites and to political supporters. Since independence forest cover in Kenya has further shrunk to just 1.7 per cent of the total land mass.
Lack of alternative livelihood opportunities in these areas has left land as the only resource to mine for people’s basic needs. Without a comprehensive approach to sustainable livelihoods, rural communities are degrading the very environment on which they depend.
Specifics of the Mau forest problem
Since 1993, the Kenyan Government has systematically carved out huge parts of Mau Forest for settlement of people from other communities. It is said that local leaders condone the destruction by using land as a political tool, oblivious to the consequences. Even members of the provincial administration were involved in the plunder.
For politicians and senior government officials, the settlement scheme was a political arena in which they promised their people land in return for votes. The majority of people who were settled were supporters of the [former] ruling party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU). They view the land as a political reward for voting their party into power.
On 16th February 2001, the Environment Minister, Mr Francis Nyenze, gave 28 days’ notice of the excision of more than 167,000 ha of forest land from the Mau. This decision caused a serious uproar from a cross-section of Kenyans opposed to the excision.
In 2003, the government set up a commission to investigate land grabbing. The Ndungu Commission, as it is known, reported to the government in June 2004, and the report was made public in December 2004. The report catalogues a staggering level of illegal and irregular allocations of public lands under the administrations of both Presidents Kenyatta and Moi, for largely patronage purposes.
For example, 1,812 ha of forest in Kiptagich, which is part of the Mau Forest complex, was cleared to resettle the Ogiek community, which has traditional rights to the forest, but the Ndungu reports states that the main beneficiaries were not the indigenous Ogiek but prominent individuals and companies.
The Ndungu Commission recommended that the large majority of the land grabbed should be revoked, stating in relation to forests that:
- All excisions of forestland which were made contrary to the provisions of the Forests Act and the Government Lands Act should be cancelled.
- All titles which were acquired consequent upon the illegal excisions and allocations of forestland should be revoked. The forestlands affected should be repossessed and restored to their original purpose.
However, the Commission made provision for addressing situations where forest land had been set aside in order to settle landless people. In such cases, where genuine landless people had been settled, the Commission recommended that while the titles should be revoked (given their inherent illegality), the Government should – subject to compliance with other legislation – issue new titles to the landless settlers.
Early efforts to remove people from the forest were stopped, among others, by a High Court injunction granted to seven individuals on the strength of their title deeds. It later appeared that the injunction applied only to the seven applicants. Later, based on increasing consensus among the Cabinet on the need to conserve the Mau, the Government decided to move ahead, evicting 10,290 people in May and June 2005.
In 2007, the decision to evict settlers from the Mau Forest suffered a setback due to the General Elections of December that year. The government of President Mwai Kibaki succumbed to pressure from opposition politicians who were using the Mau Forest evictions as a campaign platform to woo the Kalenjin ethnic group. In a bid to recover lost popularity, the government promised to issue title deeds to the settlers.
After the elections, and with the formation of the Grand Coalition, the government resumed its campaign to evict settlers from the Mau. The Sondu Miriu hydro-electric power station in Nyanza Province was unable to produce at full capacity because the Sondu Miriu River – whose source is the Mau Forest – is drying up. Opposition arose from within the coalition as majority of the Kipsigis settlers had voted for Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) which capitalized on local discontent created by the 2005 evictions.
The conflicting positions of cabinet ministers, especially opposition from Kipsigis legislators backed by their Kalenjin compatriots, paralyzed planned evictions. If anything, degradation of the Mau Forest intensified as settlers and loggers sought to make the most of their remaining stay.
Protection of the forest and protection of human rights are not mutually exclusive, and in the case of the Mau Forest evictions, the failure to address human rights has undermined protection of the forest. The overall consensus amongst environmentalists in Kenya is that the forced evictions have largely failed to protect the forest – in many cases people have simply returned to their former homes because they have nowhere else to go.
Without an adequate resettlement plan in place, evictions not only violate international human rights law; they fail to provide a solution to forest protection. The Government’s argument that the title deeds are illegitimate fails to recognise that many poor people acted in good faith when they obtained title. Moreover, where people are suspected of having obtained title deeds through corrupt or illegal practices, the burden of proving this rests with the government.
The pressure on land, water, and forested ecosystems is a function of population growth, urbanization processes, increased per capita consumption of forest resources and the failure of previous interventions to adopt approaches aimed at achieving both social and ecological goals. Equitable and sustained poverty alleviation is contingent upon the pursuit of environmental sustainability in the context of implementing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which can be said to have mediated Kenya’s new generational laws.
In truth, the problems being experienced in the Mau Forest complex are a product of the government’s own making. This, therefore, necessitates the humane approach advocated by civil society, scientists and some politicians. There’s no doubt that the settlers must be relocated but considerations regarding the acquisition of title deeds must be kept in mind. While there’s no denying that the settlement was done by previous administrations and a political party which is today at the fringes, government actions supersede individual occupants of high office. A government decision does not become illegal just because the person who made the decision is no longer in office.
As political leaders and elders have noted, the issue of settlers in the Mau Forest must be handled with extreme sensitivity and through a just mechanism. Unless justice and compensation are handled to the satisfaction of the settlers, the government could easily be laying the grounds for armed conflict that could have major repercussions on the stability of the Kenyan state.
All over the world, the mishandling of problems similar to what we see in the Mau has led to rebel movements and possibly the toppling of government. The Mau Mau crisis of the 1950s was in large part attributed to the manner in which the British colonial authorities mishandled Kikuyu land grievances. We must learn from history so as not to repeat similar mistakes.
- Amnesty International (2007). Nowhere to go: Forced evictions in Mau Forest, Kenya.
- Kemei, Kipchumba (2004, February 25). Plunder of Mau Forest a Threat to 3m People. East African Standard.
- Masibo, Kennedy. (2008, November 25). Destroy Mau Forest and forget L. Nakuru Park. The Daily Nation.
- Nkako F, Lambrechts C, Gachanja M, & Woodley B (2005). Maasai Mau Forest Status Report 2005. Narok. Ewaso Ngiro South Development Authority.
- Sang, Joseph K (2001). The Ogiek in Mau Forest.
- Sayagie, George (2008, November 9). Groups differ on Mau forest evictions. The Daily Nation.
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