12 June 2006

Kenya: How Top Officials Conspired to Grab Chunks of Forestland

Nairobi — Thousands of acres of Mau Forest are now in private hands following a shady deal involving top Government officials and well connected individuals.

Details on how this conspiracy took place can now be revealed today by The Standard. Investigations reveal that Government surveyors and other officials conspired to acquire forestland by illegally extending the boundaries of five group ranches neighbouring Mau forest.

This eventually led to loss of 14,103 hectares of forestland, which the rogue officers sold and issued the beneficiaries with fake title deeds without involving relevant Government departments.

A report compiled after the investigation says the officials subsequently prepared new forest maps to conceal their actions. However, the Government has dismissed the fake maps and is now drawing new ones.

The report, Maasai Mau Status Report, is authored by the Kenya Wildlife Service, the United Nations Environment Programme, the Ewaso Ngiro South Development Authority and the Kenya Forests Working Group.

Illegal settlement

It recommends the prosecution of Government officials - including surveyors, land registrars and district commissioners - who it says flouted the law to illegally subdivide the forest and give it out to individuals.

The Director of Survey, Joseph Mathenge, confirmed that eight officials, including three former land registrars, were under investigations and are likely to be charged.

Mathenge confirmed that the report's findings tally with investigations by the Survey of Kenya. He said the Criminal Investigations Department was on the trail of some of the officials, who have now gone underground.

The officials' actions led to invasion of Mau Forest by over 10,000 people, who the Government evicted last year. The report covers Maasai Mau, which straddles Narok District and is part of the Mau Forest Complex, one of Kenya's biggest but fast disappearing forests.

The illegal settlement opened the forest to human activity and seriously affected the source of water to millions of people living around the forest.

Ranches expanded

The report shows that when five adjacent group ranches sought permission to sub-divide their land among their members in the 1990s, Government officers, politicians, private surveyors and other influential people increased the sizes of the group ranches, exceeding their originally registered areas.

The ranches are Sisiyan, Nkaroni, Enosokon, Enakishomi and Reyio. However, there is no evidence to link the officials of the ranches with the scam. The subdivision appears to have given the surveyors and "outsiders" an opportunity to grab the forest.

After expansion, the additional land was sold to unsuspecting outsiders. Most of them obtained title deeds fraudulently while others squatted, awaiting ratification of their occupancy.

Although only 3,975.5 hectares of land had been registered in the names of the five group ranches, their land was illegally increased to 18,078.2 hectares, the investigation found out. It shows that Sisiyan had a registered area of 447.5 hectares, which surveyors increased to1,215.6 hectares, Nkaroi had 1,597.5, which shot up to 5,582.5 hectares.

Enosokon had 155, which was increased to 653, Enakishomi had 1,748.5 hectares raised to 9,748.5 and Reyio had 26 hectares, which the surveyors increased to 878.6 hectares. A total of 1,962 parcels of land inside the forest were created and fake title deeds issued.

Letters obtained fraudulently

This increased land was not shared out among the group ranches members. It was sold or given out to well-connected people.

In a transparent transaction, the subdivision of forestland can only happen with the authority of the Narok County Council, which holds the forest in trust. However, the council did not pass any resolution to give away the forest.

Those involved fraudulently obtained letters of consent from the council. The letters stated that the areas to be subdivided did not encroach into forestland.

Whenever a local authority decides to transfer ownership of the trust land, the beneficiary should be the local community, not individuals as happened in the Maasai Mau Forest scandal.

When the group ranches applied to the Land Control Boards for consent to subdivide their land, the permission was easily granted by district commissioners, who chaired the boards. These DCs had their own interests while granting consent, the report says.

"Such illegal process was made possible through conspiracy. The findings of this report indicate that due process was indeed not followed in allocation of the forestland and the eventual issuance of title deeds," the report further says.

Frenzied clamour for portions

It reveals the shocking extent of the destruction that poses an environmental disaster and threatens the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on it.

The worst affected is the Maasai Mau, where 40,000 hectares of forested land within and outside the forest boundaries has been given out over the years, says the report.

It shows that the destruction started in the 1970s and reached fever pitch soon after the Narc Government came into power. Between 2003 and last year, there was a frenzied clamour for portions of the forest.

A total of 3,510 hectares of the Maasai Mau were cleared. Some 2,800 hectares were cleared between 2000 and 2003 while 1,344 hectares were cleared between 1995 and 2000.

Alarmed by the high rate of forest destruction, the Government last year evicted more than 10,000 people who resided in the forest. The move drew protests from politicians and local leaders.

On average, 1,755 hectares were cleared each year within the forest boundaries. The report reveals a systematic and carefully executed plot to curve-off the forest without raising suspicions.

Adjudication procedures omitted

The illegal settlements extended beyond the forests boundaries set by the Ntutu Commission in 1986. Retired President Moi had named the commission in the wake of concerns about the plunder of the forest. The commission was mandated to review the boundaries to conserve the water catchment areas.

Several procedures in land adjudication process were omitted by the grabbers. When an adjudication section is declared, the provincial commissioner is required to appoint an arbitration board, but this did not happen when the Maasai Mau was subdivided.

Later, an adjudication register should be published showing the subdivisions, according to rules in the Land Adjudication Act. But again, this was no published. The director of survey did not also publish maps as required by the law because the office of the Survey of Kenya was not involved in the subdivision of Maasai Mau.

"The surveyors, including Government surveyors, conspired to illegally extend the group ranch boundaries beyond the adjudication sections into the forest," the report adds.

It recommends that any settlement of the individuals evicted should be done outside forest reserves. Last October, the Government announced that it had found a suitable area to settle the evictees, but they are yet to be resettled. Local leaders have severally said some of those evicted have returned into the forest.

Logging of indigenous trees

One of the most affected victims of the plunder is the indigenous podo tree.

Logging was found to be widespread in the western part, where it was so intense that the investigating team was unable to count the number of logs found. In the eastern part, 2,343 felled indigenous trees were counted.

Despite the ban on logging, the plunder continues although there are no special licences issued regarding the Maasai Mau.

However, those clearing the species have been getting away with it by producing licences issued by the provincial administration. The licences indicate that the produce comes from individual land in group ranches.

Conservationists, including Nobel Laureate Prof Wangari Maathai, are in favour of the retention of indigenous trees. They say the trees are important in conserving water catchment areas.

The expert opinion is supported by the report. It warns: "If not contained, logging of indigenous trees is expected to affect the integrity of the entire ecosystem. Selective logging of podo depletes existing stands, affecting its regeneration and that of other species."

Satellite images taken last year show large swathes of treeless land.

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