Nairobi — Environmental groups are up in arms over a proposal to excise part of the Ngong Hills Forest to settle 400 families.
They have demanded that the plan be shelved because it threatens the forest and many lives that depend on it.
The provincial administration had proposed that part of the 7,692-acre forest, at the foot of the Ngong Hills, be hived off to settle the families, which claim they have been occupying the land since the early 1970s.
But even as the environmentalists urged the Government not to carry out the planned settlement, it emerged that people from as far as Kajiado Town have been invading the forest in recent weeks, as local politicians stepped-up pressure for the families to be given the land.
The newcomers from Ngong, Kiserian, Kona Baridi, Kibisu and Matasia, have put up fences and built houses on the forest land.
The settlement plan comes after a promise by President Kibaki last October that landless families would be resettled.
The promise was made during a visit to State House, Nairobi, by a delegation of Maasai elders, led by Kajiado North MP George Saitoti.
Speaking by telephone, the Kajiado district commissioner, Mr Rashid Mohammed, confirmed that there was a proposal to settle the 400 families on part of the Ngong Hills Forest.
However, he said the settlement would only be done after assessment of the environment is completed.
"No one will be settled on the forest land until an Environmental Impact Assessment is done. We have to establish that the human settlement will not impact on the forest," said the DC.
He warned that the Government would not allow squatters on the land.
The Kajiado district forest officer, Mr Samuel Mukundi, said the Government had given in to pressure to settle the families on part of the forest because there was nowhere else they could go.
Two weeks ago, in the company of the district security committee, officers demolished two houses on the land, he said, adding that efforts to evict the 400 families that settled on the forest had been unsuccessful due to lack of resources.
"We have previously issued eviction notices to the 400 families but we have been unable to remove them since that will require a lot of resources, security personnel and so on," said Mr Mukundi.
The forest, located in Kajiado District, was gazetted as a forest in April 24, 1985, by the minister for Environment and Natural Resources at the time, Mr Paul Ngei, now deceased.
The forest is home to several indigenous tree species, some with medicinal value. It is also one of the sources of the River Athi, which provides water for many residents of Nairobi, Kitengela and other parts of Eastern Province.
The Athi originates from the Ngong Hills Forest and joins the Tana, which snakes its way to the Indian Ocean.
The forest is part of the country's 1.7 per cent of land under forest cover, which falls way short of the recommended forest cover of 10 per cent of the country's total land.
Before part of the forest is hived off, the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources must first degazette it.
But that will not happen, if the Kenya Forest Working Group can help it.
The organisation was opposed to the plan because it would adversely affect availability of water in many parts of the country, said the programme coordinator, Mr Michael Gachanja.
Ngong Hills Forest was a catchment area for River Athi and several streams and human settlements at the foot of the hills would stifle the forest, he said.
Already, the river is reported to have recorded a decline in water volume, he warned.
Further, the plan is contrary to the Government's campaign to protect and safeguard forests.
"This Government has been at the forefront in evicting squatters who have settled on gazetted forests. How can it turn around now and allow people to move into a forest?" asked Mr Gachanja.
The minister for Tourism and Wildlife, Mr Morris Dzoro, recently warned that the destruction of the Ngong Hills Forest through felling of trees, human settlement and overgrazing, would lead to loss of biological diversity and its value as a wildlife habitat.
In the early 1970s, the forest had wild animals such as cape buffaloes and a variety of antelopes. The animals are now nowhere to be seen.
The thinning forest cover had also led to a drop in the number of visitors to the area, said Mr Dzoro.
The Kenya Wildlife Service, which has been instrumental in afforestation in Kajiado, has also opposed the plan.
A recent water survey done by KWS had shown a decline in water in many areas bordering the forest, said programme officer Hewson Kabugi.
Rivers and springs around the forest were shrinking and drying up.
Wells were also drying up, an indication that underground water was getting depleted faster than expected, he added.
Mr Kabugi said the research had shown that reduction in water was aused by overgrazing, a drop in forest cover, increased human settlements and agricultural activities.
"The environment degradation at Ngong Hills Forest has reached an alarming stage that poses a threat to water availability. Water is a critical component in human life and a threat to this resource should be viewed with some seriousness," warned Mr Kabugi.
Already, the water survey had established that the forest degradation at the forest had resulted in a drop in rainfall in Nairobi, said the KWS.
It also emerged that the water catchment had dropped by 49.5 per cent over a period of 12 years, threatening future availability of water around Nairobi.
Mr Kabugi called for the reforestation of the area surrounding the hills, saying unchecked human activity such as overgrazing would have a catastrophic effect on the forest.
KWS, together with the community had embarked on forest management, in which the institution expects the community living around the forest to take a leading role in its conservation.
KWS is encouraging the community to start tree nurseries from which it will buy seedlings to be used in afforestation.