19 July 2005

Kenya: Cry, the Beloved Forest Land

Nairobi — Surrounded by the potato crop, 45-year-old Gateti Muriithi stretches her slender figure and wipes her sweaty face with the back of her hand.

She casts a sad gaze on the far-flung forested slopes and gestures in desperation.

"That place was good for us. But we can't go back there, and we have to stay here because that is what the Government wants," says the mother of four schoolchildren.

She is among 2,000 squatters flashed out of the Karuri Forest on the northern slopes of Mount Kenya in February this year, where they occupied about 3,000 acres of land. Many of them have now settled on their plots of land at Sirimon on Nanyuki-Meru road.

"I was able to put all my children in private academies because I would cultivate onions and potatoes on my two acres. I was harvesting up to 20 bags of grade one onions every month," reminiscences Ms Gateti.

A group of tourists savour a lush forest environment flowing with fresh water.

Five months since the violent evictions, the squatters have expressed mixed feelings over the move, with many praising the Government for providing alternative land.

The forest is however still attractive to many others, who have been sneaking back to harvest potatoes growing wildly on their former farms, sparking fears that they could destroy a grand project to rehabilitate the forest.

It has been a game of hide and seek between the farmers and the law enforcers who are eager to protect the natural resource.

Ms Gateti and her 80-year-old mother, Mama Sarah Kananu, now work on their one-and-a-half acre plot for the better part of the day. But the hard work cannot produce as much potatoes as they used to. The plot is small and is not as productive as the previous one.

"I'm yet to understand this place. I don't even know whether I like it or not. But the forest was better for me because I used to harvest more," says Ms Gateti.

Unlike Ms Gateti, 38-year-old David Maina would not think of going back to Karuri Forest. After the demarcation of the Sirimon Forest, he could not wait to settle there, and promptly abandoned his 3-acre farm in Karuri Forest two years ago.

The father of three is now able to grow maize on his one-and-a-half acre plot in Sirimon, which could not happen in Karuri because of severe cold.

Here, the climate is not as hostile, especially to his children, as it was in the forest.

His friend, Mr Stephen Mwanda however argues that there is nothing to celebrate in Sirimon and he would give anything to go back to Karuri Forest. His ballot for a plot of land landed him on a rocky and unproductive area, so he earns his daily bread working for other people in their shambas.

Those squatters who had waited for the Government to evict them four months ago are now struggling to adjust to a new life in the scheme, away from the forest that had been their home for many years.

They have sentimental attachment to the forest in which they had settled and lived for more than two decades. Its allure has been very tempting. Some had even sold their land in Sirimon and went back to the forest. They were evicted in February.

At Karuri, the squatters had a lot of money because their potato, carrot and onion production was high. The climate was perpetually wet, and the fertile soils favoured the crops. The squatters could also extend their shambas into the forest at will, depending on one's ability.

By the time they were evicted, the squatters had already cleared more than 3,000 acres for farming and settlement.

But all this was at the expense of the indigenous forest, which left only a thin strip.

Area residents, with the full support of the Government have since the evictions, been working to heal the mountain after years wanton destruction of virgin forest cover.

Timau district officer Stephen Momanyi, under whose jurisdiction the forest falls, says the community is targeting to plant more than two million seedlings in the area cleared by the squatters. It is a programme initiated by various interest groups and community projects to extract water from the mountain.

The community-based organisations, including the Green Belt Movement and the forestry department, have planted 800,000 seedlings during the year.

"We're replanting trees in phases, but we want to make it a continuous exercise because our wish is to return the forest to its former glory," says Mr Momanyi.

But the programme could not begin as planned because of lack of indigenous tree seedlings the groups wished to plant.

Mr Momanyi says more than 70 water projects in parts of Meru Central and Laikipia districts source their water from the forest.

"People from Laikipia were always in my office and they were not just coming like that; they would be armed," says Mr Momanyi, defending the Government's move to evict the squatters. "We didn't want another Mai Mahiu (the scene of recent fighting over pasture and water points) and we had to remove these squatters from the forest because they were destroying the water pipes and diverting streams to their farms."

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