20 September 2006

Kenya: Must Our Vital Forests Go?


Nairobi — This Government was elected partly on the promise to repair the massive damage visited on the environment over the last two decades or so.

One very specific pledge was to restore forest land wantonly turned over to so-called developers.

Indeed, early in its term, the Government signalled a determination to restore large sections of the Mau Forest, which had been opened to human settlement. It evicted thousands of settlers, a move that was widely praised by those who cared about the preservation of eastern Africa's most important water tower.

But, eventually, it would seem that the exigencies of politics triumphed over the important measures required to ensure the country's long-term survival.

The evictions were quietly called off, and instead, the Government endorsed a plan to officially set aside part of the forest for settlement.

Now, not content with adding to the destruction of the Mau, the Government seems to be targeting other forests.

A section of Ngong Forest on the edge of Nairobi, a rare indigenous forest often described as the "lungs" of the capital city, has been earmarked for excision, allegedly to settle the landless.

We use the word "allegedly" very deliberately. For settling the landless was the pretext employed by the former Government to decimate Kenya's forest cover.

Some landless families might have benefited with small parcels hived off from the forest. But the biggest beneficiaries were the wealthy and powerful people in political leadership and the civil service.

It was a classic case of the rich and powerful looting the common wealth using the poor and needy as cover.

There are no guarantees that similar schemes will not be hatched. Ngong Forest is too small and fragile to be opened to human settlement, whether it is for the genuine landless or the wealthy who want to parcel it out for sale.

If the Government is really keen on settling the landless, it must devise other ways of acquiring suitable land instead of decimating Kenya's already fragile forest cover at great threat to the environment.

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