Kenya's Mau Forest Dismembered for Political Payoffs

By Robert Otani

NAIROBI, Kenya, November 20, 2000 (ENS) - One of Kenya's few remaining moist forests is set to lose another 60,000 hectares (148,000 acres) of land, intensifying a conservation crisis brought about by the Kenya government's systematic destruction of the country's forest cover.

Kenyan and international environmentalists have expressed concern over the government's plan to degazette the latest chunk of the Mau Forest for human settlement.

The forest consists of the Western Mau, the Southwestern, the Trans-Mara and the 01 Pusimoru, all forming a continuous ecosystem that harbors unique plant and animal species.

bongos

Endangered bongos in the Mau forest, a male with two calves. (Photo courtesy Rare Species Conservatory Foundation)
It is home to elephants, endangered bongos, giant forest hogs and an array of rare primates such as the colobus and blue monkeys.

More significantly, it is a catchment for some of the largest rivers in Kenya, which feed such key lakes as Nakuru, Bogoria and Lake Victoria in Kenya and Lake Natron in Tanzania.

The Mara River, the only permanent water source in the Ihasal Mara and the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, originates in the Mau forest.

The three rivers that feed Lake Nakuru, the home to the world famous flamingo population, also originate in the forest. The flamingos are an important factor in Kenya's tourism industry, drawing visitors from around the world.

The forest supports the flamingos, not only directly through the Lake Nakuru feeding site, but also indirectly through the Lake Natron, the only known breeding habitat for these flamingos.

birds

Flamingos on Lake Natron are suffering from falling water levels. (Photo courtesy Safariweb)
Environmentalists say the move makes little sense, especially taking into consideration the construction of a hydroelectric project currently taking place on the Sondu-Miriu River, which also emanates from the Mau forest.

But despite its great ecological significance, the forest has not been spared the destruction of the country's forest cover with the government's blessing to reward politically correct individuals with land for development.

The gradual shrinking of the Mau Forest started with the land fragmentation and settlement program of the 1970s. Then, the forest covered nearly half of the entire Lake Nakuru catchment basin.

By the 1980s, this process had stabilized and there was little threat to the forest. But with the advent of political pluralism in 1990 and the subsequent severe forest degazettements and erratic settlements, only about 10 percent of the Lake Nakuru catchment remains under forest cover.

In the past six years alone, about 200 square kilometers (77 square miles) have been lost through politically motivated settlements.

Besides the Sondu-Miriu power project, which comes amid the most severe power crisis Kenya has ever known, the numerous rivers which originate from the forest are critical to agriculture and the allied economies of the mixed farming highlands.

Recent studies by the Kenya Wildlife Service and the local World Wildlife Fund have revealed that the communities around the forest greatly appreciate this direct forest value. They are therefore alarmed at the prospect of further degazettement.

They suggest that the best solution would be the privatization of the remaining forests so that they may be managed by the communities with a direct stake in the welfare of the forest. They are taking this position because the government headed by long time President Daniel Arap Moi seems to have failed as the sole custodian of forest management for the public good.

A case in point is the indigenous Ogiek community, who are fighting a legal battle against the excision of part of the forest where they used to live for politically inspired human settlement.

Maathai

Dr. Wangari Maathai, founder of the Greenbelt Movement, has opposed Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi politically. (Photo courtesy Right Livlihood Award)
This problem is not a new one in Kenya. In 1997, Kenya Greenbelt Movement founder Dr. Wangari Maathai asked, "If the attorney general cannot prosecute known land grabbers and the ordinary citizen lacks the locus standi to take such cases to court, who will save Kenya?"

Jacqueline Klopp wrote an article earlier this year in "Africa Today" detailing the situation, "Pilfering the Public: The Problem of Land Grabbing in Contemporary Kenya."

"The intensification of irregular allocations of public land to well connected individuals and land buying companies in Kenya's 'land grabbing mania' is a particularly revealing and underscrutinized case of deepening corruption," Klopp writes.

Moi

Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
Klopp argues that the combined effects of a decline in traditional sources of patronage such as aid, greater international scrutiny of some forms of corruption, and enhanced political competition pose real threats to the Moi government. "In such a context, public land, highly accessible and less encumbered by international conditionalities than private property, is an attractive patronage asset."

Eileen Omosa of the Forest Action Network, Kenya wrote in a report about the Mau Forest earlier this year, "Apart from the forest dwellers, there has been a negative environmental impact on the forest since the clear felling started. Land that is on a slope of more than 50 percent gradient has been allocated to farmers with no measures to check the soil erosion. River banks have been allocated and people cultivate beyond two meters from the river bank, hence affecting river flows. This has resulted in siltation from the hilly areas to the surrounding lakes threatening their existence. The rivers and the lakes are also drying up due to destruction of the catchment area."

"The survival of Mau forest is threatened as an important catchment area for many rivers and lakes; source of food and other forest products for forest communities and forest adjacent communities; and a habitat for biodiversity. As important as it is, the forest is threatened and needs to be protected," Omosa said.