4 April 2005

East Africa: Kenyan Ministers' Row Over 'Grabbed' Forest Land Deepens Divisions in Narc

Nairobi — Clashes within Kenya's fractious ruling coalition extended last week to involve government policies, with Lands and Housing Minister Amos Kimunya declaring that the ongoing evictions in forests were a Cabinet decision and would continue, in defiance of his Environment Ministry counterpart Kalonzo Musyoka, who is opposed to the exercise.

"Once we finish setting out the boundaries, all those found within forests will have to validate their title deeds because the forest land was not available for allocation in the first place. No matter what anyone says, the origin of the titles is doubtful.

"Indeed, it is no different from other public utility lands that the government has earmarked for restoration to the original purpose," Mr Kimunya told The East- African in an exclusive interview last Friday.He said all holders of title deeds issued for forest land will need to have their documents validated.

On Wednesday, Mr Musy- oka, under whose docket forests fall, became the first Cabinet minister to oppose the planned evictions that started last month.

Speaking in Nakuru, the minister, who is a lawyer, said the evictions were against the law and he would not endorse them because the land carved out of forests had title deeds "which were recognised by the government."

"As the Minister for Environment, I will not endorse the planned evictions of squatters from their land. The rule of law must prevail," Mr Musyoka reportedly told a consultative meeting attended by leaders from the Rift Valley Province in Nakuru. He said the evictions would not solve the problems associated with forest land.

His position resonates with arguments raised by the Kenya Bankers Association, which has insisted that since the titles were issued by the government, it has a duty to protect the holders. Banks stand to lose an estimated Ksh65 billion ($844,155) in loans and advances given to holders of such title deeds.

But Mr Kimunya said, "We are working closely with the Attorney-General's office to draft a Bill to amend the law to provide for the formation of a land titles tribunal. It will have quasi-judicial powers just like the Land Acquisitions Tribunal and its decisions will be binding. There is no going back and Amos Wako [the A-G] has assured me that the Bill will be tabled in Parliament soon."

He added, "The Tribunal is only going to create the framework for the cancellation of doubtful titles. This means even situations not captured in the Ndung'u Report can always be brought forward for deliberation."

The evictions are based on radical recommendations made by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Irregular and Illegal Allocations of Public Land since Independence, popularly known as the Ndung'u Commission. It was chaired by Nairobi lawyer Paul Ndung'u. It handed over its report to President Mwai Kibaki in June last year.

Among key recomend- ations by the report was the revocation of all title deeds granted over the years "whose origin is of doubtful validity."

However, revocation of titles cannot be done outside the judicial system and the Commission recommended amendments to the Government Land Act, Cap 280, and the registration of Titles Act, Cap 281, that vests the powers to cancel titles deeds in the High Court.

The Commission further proposed the establishment of a quasi-judicial land titles tribunal to implement the proposed revocation of illegal title deeds.

Mr Kimunya said he had authorised all government departments, including Local Authorities, forestry, military and state corporations to immediately embark on the recovery of any of their land that may have been passed on to individuals, businesses and religious organisations.

"There is a lot going on, all government departments have the mandate to recover any of their properties that may have been grabbed. They don't have to wait for the tribunal as the land had been reserved for public utility and not personal gain. Local authorities also have the mandate to reclaim all public utility land that was illegally allocated by the previous regime," he added.

It is, however, feared that that the reclamation of forest land and the evictions could become a bone of contention between Narc's feuding factions - the National Alliance Party of Kenya, to which Mr Kimunya belongs, and Mr Musyoka's Liberal Democratic Party.

The allocation of forests raised an outcry when the Kanu government degazetted huge tracts of land in 2001.

In its haste to allocate the land, Kanu never bothered to degazette the forests, to legalise the allocations, giving the Narc government room to justify the evictions.

Although the protests against the evictions have so far been confined to backbenchers and Kanu MPs from Rift Valley, the position taken by Mr Musyoka is likely to trigger protests against evictions in other forests in the country. But it is instructive that Finance Minister David Mwiraria made no protest when hundreds of his constituents were evicted from Sirimon area of Mt Kenya forest in February.

According to the Ndung'u Report, there are more than 200,000 "illegal and irregular title deeds, which raise the possibility of a massive revocations and ratification process. Most of the deeds are in the more recently developed settlement schemes and forest excisions. The bulk of these titles were issued in the past 12 -15 years."

The report identifies forests land illegally allocated whose revocation it recommends - covering 34,273 hectares of indigenous forest in Eastern and South-Western Mau Forest Reserve, 8,700 hectares hived off Mt Elgon forest to create the Chepyuk settlement scheme, 531 hectares of Kapolet forest and 11,000 hectares of Embobuti forest, both in Marakwet district.

Others are 10,270 hectar- es of indigenous forests and wildlife habitat destroy- ed following the excision of the Marmanet and Gitundaga forests in Laikipia district.

Excision of over 297,000 hectares has reduced the forest cover in Kenya from 1.7 million hectares to 1.4 million hectares, which is 2.5 per cent of the total land area, but only 1.7 per cent which is closed canopy forest.

"According to international standards, a country with less than 10 per cent of its area under closed canopy forest is environmentally unstable. Forest excisions have severely affected the five main water towers of Mt Kenya, Mau Complex, Mt Elgon, Cherangani and the Aberdares," the report adds.

It further notes that the progressive excision of forests and resultant chaos is in contravention of all environmental agreements and conventions that Kenya has signed. These include the Convention of Biological Diversity, the Framework Convention of Climate Change and the Ramsar Convention, among others.

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