12 June 2006

Kenya: Efforts to Save Forest Hit Snag

Nairobi — Efforts to save Mau Forest have run into problems even as new studies show that an environmental disaster is unfolding.

The livelihoods of millions of people who depend on the forest are threatened as rainfall patterns begin to change in surrounding areas. Rivers that originate from the forest are also heavily polluted.

A recent study by World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a conservation group, indicated that levels of phosphates and nitrates have reached dangerous proportions in the Mara River. The chemicals are released into the river when rainwater washes off fertiliser used by farmers who have invaded the forest.

Soil erosion has also increased as the farmers clear the forest and leave large swathes of steep land bare. The worst victim of the destruction is the Maasai Mau Forest, which straddles Narok District.

If rainfall continues to dwindle, it would have a devastating effect on agriculture, which is the economic mainstay for Kenya. Narok District, which currently has 64,000 hectares under wheat cultivation, is likely to be among the most affected.

"If nothing is done, we are going to lose that wheat," said Doris Ombara, a project officer with WWF.

Greenhouse gases

This is happening amid concerns of global warming, which is worst in the southern hemisphere. The phenomenon refers to rise in global temperatures, caused by accumulation of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases".

One of the ways this happens is through the cutting of trees, which absorb carbon dioxide. Without trees, the gas accumulates in the atmosphere and forms a kind of blanket, holding in heat around the earth.

The Maasai Mau is part of the Mau Forest Complex, which covers several districts and is Kenya's biggest forest. The complex covers 400,000 hectares and is the biggest single block of forest in Eastern Africa.

The effects are being felt across the border in Tanzania, where authorities are said to be concerned over the destruction of the Mau. An official said the country has asked Kenya to "take concrete actions" against the destruction of the Mau, failure to which it would seek intervention through the East African Community.

The Mara River stretches into Tanzania and is a crucial source of water for Serengeti National Park.

Said Narok District Commissioner Wilson Wanyanga: "Neighbouring countries are quite worried that the leadership of this area has abetted the destruction. We are getting embarrassed."

Lack of physical boundaries

Ombara said fish farming downstream has been affected. A huge swamp at its source inside the forest is also receding. She said the study by WWF further showed that levels of mercury were too high in the river.

"People have been talking about Mau forest for too long. What is required now is action," said Ombara.

But recent efforts have not succeeded as they have run into an array of problems. Many of the 10,000 people evicted from the forest by the government in May and June have since returned, witnesses say.

A recent aerial survey by the United Nations Environmental Programme (Unep) and Kenya Forests Working Group, a conservation lobby, established that those who have newly settled in the forest continue to cut down trees.

"We saw many new houses," said Christian Lambretchs, an official of Unep's Division of Early Warning and Assessment.

Lambretchs said the forest should also be conserved because it has a big potential for attracting tourists.

Government officials who illegally subdivided the forest and sold it to unsuspecting people easily did so because it lacks physical boundaries marking it from private land. However, efforts by the Narok County Council to mark the boundaries using bulldozers have not succeed because it cannot raise the Sh18 million needed for the job.

The county council clerk, Wilson Mwita, said more than 40km need to be marked.

"It's more difficult than we thought. The bulldozers need to be transported through difficult terrain and steep inclines," said Mwita.

Flurry of court cases

But some boundaries are marked by rivers Nosagami, Endorrobiri, Kollobisho and Sikender. The new report recommends that the forest's boundaries be marked physically as one of the ways of discouraging encroachment.

The District Forests Officer, Solomon Mibei, said a new project to plant trees in the Maasai Mau would kick off next month. The Green Zone Development Project hopes to cover 2,500 hectares of hilltops with new trees.

The project is part of a Sh3 billion project funded by the Africa Development Bank, which targets 26 districts. But Mibei said efforts to plant trees were being bogged down by lack of adequate staff.

The coordinator of Kenya Forests Working Group, Michael Gachanja, said the Government should evict all those who had returned into the forest. He said authorities charged with protecting the forest should prepare a management plan, which would give direction on how to take care of it.

The Government should also prosecute all those involved in the illegal demarcation of the forest, he said.

A flurry of court cases filed by those who had settled in the forest have hindered efforts to evict the squatters. Authorities, especially officials of the county council, fear going to jail for contempt. Former clerk Stanisla Ondimu was jailed last December for carrying on evictions against a court order.

His successor, Mwita, said the council could not set outposts for use by forest guards because it could be interpreted to mean he was disobeying court orders.

The council recently hired more than 100 guards.

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