12 September 2006

Tanzania: Forest Grabbing a Threat to Tanzania, Kenyan Economies

Nairobi — The destruction of the Maasai Mau forest pose negative environmental implications to both Tanzania and Kenya.

The two countries depend on common water resources emanating from the forest.

Maasai Mau, which covers 46,278 hectares, is part of the larger 400,000-hectare Mau Forest Complex - Kenya's biggest forest block. It forms the upper catchment of the Ewaso Nyiro, a river that flows into Lake Natron where millions of flamingos breed.

It also constitutes much of the headwaters of the Mara river which flows through the Maasai Mara National Reserve to Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Both are world famous parks of important biological diversity with an estimated 450 and 540 species of birds, respectively.

Besides birds, the bongo and the yellow-backed duiker, the leopard and the African elephant occur in areas bordering Maasai Mau while the giant forest hog, or Greater Galago, grant giraffe, cape buffalo and other animals occupy the moist forest zone and other areas in the forest. Ewaso Nyiro and Mara rivers are also intricately linked to the well-being of the vast pastoralist economy that spans across many districts in Kenya and Tanzania.

But the ongoing hiving off of more land from Maasai Mau and Ngong forests are typical cases that demonstrate how powerful public officials have been more lethal to forests that power saws.

The grabbing of forest land started during former president Jomo Kenyatta's rule, when by the stroke of the pen he would sanction the conversion of a forest into agricultural land, particularly for tea production by his cronies.

When former president Daniel arap Moi took power in 1978, he promised to follow his predecessor's footsteps, and literally did so.

By using forests and other public land to seek popularity. Moi himself acquired 1,000 hectares in the Transmara forest of Narok District in the 1980s. This was long before the advent of multi-party politics when Moi's continued hold on to power faced real and legalised challenge.

Indeed, in the 1990s, public land and forests became handy in keeping cronies and entire communities voting for Moi and Kanu. As a result, nearly every forest in the country - Karura, Kaptagat, Sirimon, Marmanet, Cherangani, Mt Kenya, Imenti - was targeted in a grand scandal that has few parallels anywhere in Africa.

The most infamous decision was when the Moi regime attempted to degazette 67,185 hectares from 12 forest blocks around the country. The government had used the pretence that the forests were already settled on and all it was doing was to rationalise the status quo.

It took the efforts of experts of Unep's Division of Early Warning and Assessment to reveal that all this was untrue and many of the forest were actually intact.

With the land grabs not ending, ecological and hydrological functions and services that the forests offered were irreparably interrupted with. Rains became less frequent in some areas, and when they came they were violent storms that caused floods.

However, when Mwai Kibaki succeeded Moi, he soon set up the Ndung'u's Commission to investigate and report on all land grabbing that had taken place since Independence. And like all past commissions, the Ndung'u commission made an impressive effort to uncover the scandals, but its report is now gathering dust in official government stores.

Later, the government was to cry foul as parliament refused to pass the Forest Bill, while the Cabinet resolved to kick out thousands of squatters from various government forests - Maasai Mau, Mt Kenya, Karuri, Sirimon, Ebuuru and Dundori, among others.

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