Nairobi — Following last week's forced eviction by the government of settlers who had invaded the Maasai Mau Forest,The EastAfrican has established that the massive re-settlement of people in the forests was political.
Though the settlement and destruction of the forest is said to have begun after the creation of Bomet District by former president Daniel arap Moi in the 1990s, the process was accelerated less than five years ago.
Many of the incoming residents, who are said to have been mainly drawn from one community, were encouraged to settle in the forest in order to vote in a politician for the Narok South constituency seat.
Relocation of the settlers was, however, done at a heavy price to the environment.
Today, tens of thousands of hectares of the original forest have been destroyed by the "invaders" while the internationally-important Ewaso Nyiro river has significantly dwindled in volume. This has caused concern in the Tanzanian government as the river partly drains into Lake Natron.
It had also heightened the long-running animosity between the Kipsigis and the Maasai communities, with the Maasai complaining that the Kipsigis - who have adopted a more sedentary life-style - had occupied and were destroying the only catchment for the Ewaso Nyiro river and thereby indirectly affecting their livelihoods.
Blamed for instigating the massive plunder of the forest are local politicians and a number of former key officials in the past government. They have been accused of instigating the destruction through the mass relocation of the invaders for purposes of using them as a voting block in 2002.
Even before the government had acted on the settlers, other local politicians had moved to rally them against the impending eviction. Last week, CID officers quizzed a senior politician for allegedly urging residents to defy the government's order to vacate the forest while addressing several political rallies in Narok South constituency.
The EastAfrican has been informed that the settlements were "illegal" because the Narok County Council, which is the custodian of the forest, had never passed any resolution that would have set on course the process of settlement. On its part, the Ministry of Lands had not declared the forest, an adjudication area as is required by the law.
"It is all illegal," said the Managing Director of the Ewaso Nyiro Development Authority, Mr Francis ole Nkaku.
The Lands Minister, Amos Kimunya, told The EastAfrican that claims that the settlers had some "ownership papers" does not legitimise their occupation. "A forest is a forest and we are dead serious that it has to remain so."
Eye-witnesses have told The EastAfrican that since the invasion began less than five years ago, much of the forest has now been destroyed. Before the government moved in, the daily destruction was systematic and took the form of massive destruction of indigenous trees which were being felled in their thousands. This would be followed soon after by the erection of hundreds of charcoal-burning kilns. And as heavy commercial vehicles were deployed to transport the timber - with some of it being exported through the port of Mombasa - the remaining "lesser" vegetation would be set ablaze to commence actual settlement and cultivation.
"It was one of the most shameful destruction of natural resources I have ever seen in Kenya since I started working with the Kenya Forest Working Group in 1995," said a programme officer with Unep's Division of Early Warning & Assessment, Christian Lambretch.
Through Mr Lambretch's initiative, Unep/DEWA conducted an aerial survey of the forest in mid February that led to the mapping of the destruction. Using satellite imaging techniques and the Global Positioning System (GPS), DEWA was able to determine the original boundaries of the forest and the amount of damage that had been caused by the settlers.
It is now evident from the charts that between 1986 and 2003, 20,330 hectares of the original 46,278 hectares had been destroyed.
"The destroyed area is bigger than the entire Karura forest by between 11 and 12 times," said Mr Lambretch.
Following this, the ability of the forest to replenish the waters of Ewaso Nyiro river is dwindling fast. This is the river that drains into Lake Natron, the principal breeding ground for the millions of flamingoes that grace Kenya's Rift Valley lakes of Nakuru, Elementaita, Baringo and Bogoria, which attract huge numbers of tourists each year.
As a result, the issue had taken an international dimension with the Tanzanian government expressing concern over the evident reduction in the volume of the river's water.
"The Tanzanians had raised the matter on a number of occasions during our joint meetings and in the East African Community," said Mr Nkaku, who added that though Kenya holds the "sovereign" right over the catchment of Ewaso Nyiro, it has the international responsibility of managing the Maasai Mau forest for the benefit of all upstream and downstream users.
"It is a bigger regional problem," said Mr Kimunya, who cited Tanzania and Egypt as some of the regional stakeholders of the larger Mau Forest Complex.