25 April 2006

Kenya: Squatters Told to Leave Forest in Three Weeks

Nairobi — More than 200 families living as squatters in the Gwasi hills of Suba District have been given three weeks to leave or be forced out.

The notice follows the hills' gazettement as a government forest reserve in August.

District forest officer Sammy Nderitu said the squatters had been given until May 1, from April 11, after they defied past attempts to have them leave. Also affected by the notice are two primary schools.

The gazettement follows a spirited campaign by a Kisumu NGO, Osienala (Friends of Lake Victoria), which petitioned the Environment ministry to gazette the forest.

Conservationists and local leaders also complained that the failure to classify the forest had frustrated conservation efforts, resulting in massive human encroachment and destruction of indigenous trees.

More than half of the 12,140-hectare forest has been destroyed by charcoal burners, peasant farmers and traditional healers harvesting herbs.

The destruction has adversely affected the area's rainfall pattern and caused massive soil erosion and siltation of rivers draining into Lake Victoria, says Osienala scientist Peter Mireri.

"The depletion of resources on the Gwasi hills has had serious consequences," he told the Nation in an interview. "Water flow from springs has been reduced, deep gullies have developed due to erosion, there has been a loss of biodiversity and crop yields have dwindled."

Osienala has, in collaboration with NGO African Endangered Wildlife, started a conservation project in the hills.

"We have formed village committees to help us to stop the destruction of the forest cover," Mr Mireri said. "Through these committees, squatters living in the hills are being encouraged to look for land elsewhere."

A meeting in Magunga Division last year resolved that the families leave immediately.

Osienala executive director Obiero Ong'ang'a says in a report that in the hills, there is an abundance of miraa (khat) trees, which are believed to be the preserve of Meru.

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