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Kenya’s vital Mau forest under threat

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Kenya’s vital Mau forest under threat

The Mau Forest Complex in Kenya is key to the environmental health of large swathes of not only Kenya but surrounding countries. But over the decades, this vital asset has been plundered, to the point of crisis. The implications are dire. Wanjohi Kabukuru reports from Nairobi.

Kakwetin Lesinjo is a member of the Ogiek, an indigenous forest-dwelling community who inhabit the Mau Forest in Kenya’s Rift Valley. He has watched with horror as the destruction of what he considers his home has continued unabated over the years. “The tragedy of the Mau destruction is corruption, bad politics and a refusal to listen to our scientists,” Lesinjo says.

The Mau is generating serious political and environmental interest as it is fast mutating to become a classic case study of resource-based conflict, with much wider repercussions hundreds of kilometres away. “In the past three decades or so, the Mau Forest Complex has undergone significant land use changes, due to an increased human population demanding land for settlement and subsistence agriculture,” says Peter Musula, a hydrologist at the University of Venda in South Africa, who has studied the Mau ecosystem.

“Today, the effects of the anthropogenic activities are slowly taking their toll, as is evident from the diminishing river discharges during periods of low flows, and the deterioration of river water qualities, through pollution from point and non-point sources,” says Musula.

Decades-old politically instigated encroachment, which started after independence in 1963 and increased in the 80s and 90s, has led to extensive illegal, irregular and iIl-planned settlements. A decade ago, the early warning assessment division of the Nairobi-based UN Environment Agency warned of the grim prospects fomented by continual deforestation at the complex. “Kenya stands to lose an economic asset worth over $300m if the forest in the Mau Complex continues to be degraded and destroyed,” UN Environment warned in 2008.

Haphazard governmental interventions, largely consisting of forced evictions to relocate settlers away from the complex, and discordant reforestation efforts, have been unsuccessful. Further complicating the issue, politicians drawn from the different communities involved have taken sides, igniting communal animosity and apprehension at the expense of sound environmental conservation practices.

Shocking discoveries

Surveys using time series analysis of satellite-based remote-sensing data by the Nairobi-based Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD) have revealed shocking land cover changes in the Mau Forest Complex. According to RCMRD, before 1986, the dominant pre-change land cover types were forests (about 75%), woodlands (12%) and farms (13%). By 1989, the landscape within the complex had experienced significant changes. Both forest and woodland, which previously covered 87%, had significantly reduced, to 60% between them. Agriculture and built-up areas, which three years earlier covered 13%, had risen to 40% coverage.

The bleak data was worrying but little was being done to address the deterioration. In 2009, which was 23 years after the mapping had revealed the degradation, then Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, appointed a special task force on the conservation of the Mau. In their report, the expert task force noted that between 1994 and 2009, some 107,707 ha, representing 25% of the Mau Complex area, had been converted into settlements and farmlands under the pretext of settling the landless poor – not to mention inconsistent forest policies by succeeding governments.

The task force report went on to give a stark warning: “In 2001, 61,587 hectares of forest in the Mau Complex were excised. In addition, an estimated 29,000 hectares have been encroached in the remaining protected forests of the Mau Complex, while over 17,000 hectares were illegally allocated in Maasai Mau alone. Such an extensive and on-going destruction of a key natural asset for the country is a matter of national emergency. It presents significant environmental, economic and security threats.”

Most of this illegal encroachment was by prominent personalities during the tenure of Kenya’s second President, Daniel arap Moi. To save the Mau Complex, the task force recommended the establishment of a 24km cut-line, to act as a buffer between the forest and human settlements, and called for the evictions of illegal settlers within the complex. The government has been struggling to implement this rule, just as it has wavered on its previous conservation ideals, largely due to competing political interests.

Inter-communal conflict between the Maasai, Kalenjin and Ogiek communities who are settled there is now festering as politicians focus on ‘their people’ in terms of voters and ignore the impending ecological calamity. According to Environment Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko, more than 430,000 ha of the Mau Forest Complex is now classified by the Kenyan government as a fragile biodiversity hotspot under threat. He disclosed this during the recent Climate Change and Development in Africa Conference (CCDA7), organised by the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA) and UNECA, and held in Nairobi, Kenya, in early October.

As of September this year, the Narok County Commissioner, George Natembeya revealed that some 40 titles accounting for some 5,000 acres had been surrendered by some of the prominent personalities in the Moi government who had benefi ted illegally.

East Africa’s largest indigenous mountain forest

Being the largest indigenous mountain forest in East Africa, the Mau Complex feeds three major trans-boundary lakes. These include Lake Victoria (shared by Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania), Lake Natron in Tanzania and Lake Turkana in Kenya. Lakes Baringo, Nakuru and Naivasha are also dependent on the 12 rivers draining from the Mau Complex.

According to Mark Boit of the department of Geomatic Engineering and Geo Spatial Information at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, key global tourist destinations, which happen to be wildlife havens and largely depend on the Mau ecosystem, have been experiencing the impact of the degradation. Mithika Mwenda, who heads the PACJA, says: “Though the Mau Complex is in Kenya, it is actually a critical water tower for Eastern Africa and even the Nile Basin. We are concerned because continual degradation will definitely bring the worst effects of climate change to communities and other ecosystems that depend on it. We need to address the Mau Complex with solid science in mind and not short-term political gain.”

In terms of people and space, the government has two phases of planned evictions. In the first phase, the government moved some 12,000 families. So far it has reclaimed some 146,000 ha. In the second phase, it is targeting some 40,000 settlers in the complex, seeking to reclaim 10,000 ha. It is these evictions that have seen politicians taking sides with their respective communities, sparking tension and communal conflict, which has in turn led to several fatalities. “You can never look at our water towers, protected areas, forests and wildlife corridors as single isolated units but as interconnected ecosystems, which have wider spill-over effects. First to suffer will be the Aberdare, Mt Kenya, Tana Delta, Mau and Maasai Mara ecosystems, which will become water-stressed,” says Dr Ottichilo, a geo-information scientist who is County Governor of Vihiga. A comprehensive benefit scheme, as spelt out in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), should be worked out so that communities at the water towers enjoy the benefits of conservation and avoid conflicts, he advises.

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