x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Thousands of illegal settlers evicted from Kenyan forest

About 30,000 people have been living in the Mau Forest illegally, felling trees for charcoal and timber and clearing the land for farming

Illegal logging has contributed to the destruction of the Mau Forest in Kenya
Illegal logging has contributed to the destruction of the Mau Forest in Kenya

NAIROBI // Illegal settlers in one of Kenya's largest forests were evicted from their land last week as officials prepared to rehabilitate the environment that has been ravaged by human encroachment. Hundreds of families tramped out of the forest carrying their belongings, television reports showed. About 30,000 people have been living in the Mau Forest illegally, felling trees for charcoal and timber and clearing the land for farming.

The United Nations has called the destruction of the Mau Forest one of Kenya's worst environmental disasters. The 162,000-hectare forest complex in western Kenya was once home to a small population of Ogiek, a hunter-gatherer tribe that lived harmoniously with the land. About 15 years ago, Daniel arap Moi, the president at the time, began giving out land in the forest in return for political favours. Politicians in turn sold the forest land or gave it to farmers to win votes.

The sprawling forest on the edge of the Rift Valley is one of east Africa's most important watersheds. Rivers that begin in the forest feed Rift Valley lakes, including Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile River. The Mara River, which runs through the Masai Mara game park, also begins in the forest and is an important tourist attraction. The rivers had started drying as trees began to fall. Kenya relies on hydroelectric dams to generate most of its electricity and power cuts have become common as river levels drop.

This year, the government decided to evict the settlers and plant millions of trees to restore the forest to its former glory. The problem is, since most forest dwellers settled there illegally, the government will not pay them for the land. With nowhere else to go, the uprooted settlers are squatting in makeshift camps that are eerily reminiscent of the displacement camps that still house thousands of Kenyans who fled their homes after last year's post-election violence.

"These politicians have been kicking us around like a football," Elijah Busiene, a farmer, told the Associated Press news service. Many settlers were sold fake land titles. The government has given them three weeks to move out and has sent security to the area to help with evictions, Noah Wekesa, the forestry minister, told reporters. "Let it not be seen as if these people do not know what the government is doing," he said.

"They are good Kenyans who understand the enormity of the problem and some have already started moving out." So far, the settlers have left voluntarily. However, the lack of alternative land for the forest's former denizens has many worried that the government is creating another wave of displaced people. "Hundreds are being thrown out into the cold without any idea where they will take shelter," the Daily Nation, Kenya's largest newspaper, said in an editorial. "Creating a large pool of helpless people is the stuff that breeds social discontent. This ultimately undermines the legitimate goal of restoring the lost forest cover."

Destruction of the Mau could cost Kenya US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion) in the tourism, agriculture and energy sectors, a report by the UN Environmental Programme said. About 25 per cent of the forest has already been cleared, UNEP said. Kenya's aggressive plan to rehabilitate the forest is part of its strategy to position the country as an environmental leader before next month's summit on climate change in Copenhagen, Raila Odinga, the prime minister, said at an environmental conference last week.

"Through acts of unbridled greed, irresponsibility, mismanagement of public resources and a severe lack of civic responsibility, we lost most of our forest and our water towers to human encroachment and illegal logging," he said. "We have embarked on ambitious reforestation programmes. In Kenya, we are not waiting for Copenhagen for help." After the settlers are removed, the government plans to start planting trees. It has launched a multimillion-dollar appeal for help and is receiving funding from the UNEP.

Mr Odinga has made the rehabilitation of the Mau Forest one of his principal issues as he looks toward the 2012 presidential election. "Our sights are set high on rehabilitating the Mau Forest Complex to function and provide its ecosystem services to this nation and the eastern Africa region," he said. "We are looking at securing the livelihoods and economies of millions of Africans." :mbrown@thenational.ae