27 May 2008

Kenya: Raila's Turn to Tour Critical Mau Forest Complex Ruffles Feathers

Nairobi — As the Prime Minister, when Mr Raila Odinga visits the Mau Forest Complex Tuesday, he will be hard put to make unpopular pronouncements, but which will nevertheless safeguard the future of millions of Kenyans, who depend on the environmental services offered by the Mau.

The flight Mr Odinga takes Tuesday will be over parts of the 400,000-hectare forest complex that are now reeling under widespread invasion by illegal settlers, logging and destruction of indigenous trees, hundreds of acres of forest land that are now converted into cropland, encroachment by tea plantations and pockets of thick smoke emanating from tens (if not hundreds) of charcoal burning kilns.

Mr Odinga is likely to relive a tour made by Environment and Natural Resources minister John Michuki on May 8.

The latter is said to have been "horrified' by the destruction of this all-important life-supporting natural system. It is believed that Mr Odinga's interest and decision to tour the Mau was occasioned by prompting from Michuki.

Earlier, a combined team of conservationists from Unep, the Kenya Forestry Working Group and the Ewaso Nyiro South Development Authority had made a rapid aerial assessment, which unearthed the "mayhem" wrought on the Mau forests.

The team conducted the surveillance trip on January 23, with the aim of ascertaining some complaints made of increased forest destruction after the disputed 2007 December presidential elections.

The team overflew a number of forests that constitute the Mau Forest Complex -Maasai Mau, Ol Pusimoru, Transmara and South West Mau.

The team later prepared a report, "Southern Mau Complex Forests Rapid Aerial Assessment", that paints a rather gloomy picture on the status of the forests.

The more than 400,000 complex is reputed to be the largest remaining continuous forest cover in East Africa. It is vital as a catchment area for rivers Nzoia, Yala, Nyando, Mara and Sondu -all which empty into Lake Victoria.

Without Mau forests, such lakes like Nakuru, Naivasha, Baringo, Natron (in Tanzania) and Turkana would be no more. Further, the forests provide support to a wide diversity of wildlife that grace the Maasai Mara National Reserve, among other protected areas.

Indeed, the biggest percentage of Kenya's economy -tea, dairy, horticulture, tourism and large to small holder farming- is intricately intertwined with what happens in the Mau.

But from the report, it seems many of the forests have continued to be destroyed under the very noses of different government departments.

For instance, the report says that there are now settlements on the Eastern Block, north-western and south-western parts of the Maasai Mau Forest.

Those settling here, the report says, have not only put up illegal shelters, but have opened up fields for crop production. Besides this, extensive destruction of indigenous trees has been going on.

Those who carried out the assessment came across what they term in the report; "logging of indigenous trees, mostly podo, along the eastern boundary".

This is more so along the Enkare Sikinder river and that logging seemed to have intensified to the northern part along that boundary.

In the Ol Pusimoru Forest Reserve -which is now managed by the Kenya Forest Service - the assessors found increased encroachment by settlers, especially to the south-western corner.

According to the report: "If not addressed promptly, this will lead to a total clear felling of the forest in that area."

Large section

The report says the danger is compounded by increased settlement in the Sierra Leone area of Maasai Mau Forest.

As far as the South West Mau Forest Reserve is concerned (also managed by the KFS), a large section degazetted in 2001 is now "almost completely settled".

But settlers have not stopped there, the report says they have now encroached on the area that is still cropped with the indigenous trees. It says there is "intensification of the settlements inside the remaining gazetted forest along the 2001 excision boundary".

Transmara forest reserve is not spared either. Besides "limited logging" of podo trees, those who did the aerial reconnaissance found forest fire on the north eastern and south east corner and tea plantations that have encroached into Transmara and south west Mau forest reserves "beyond the boundaries of the illegally allocated land". From the report, it seems that Mr Odinga will definitely come across evidence of a big and rising threat not only to the country's economy, but also to lives and livelihoods of millions of people in Nyanza, Western and Rift Valley.

He is expected to make a public statement against the ongoing destruction that is also likely to give directions on the next course of action by the Government.

In the past, the Government's desire to put a halt to this has been frustrated by two camps of politicians.

Unfairly targeted

There are those -particularly from the Rift Valley - who have raised issue with the Government's anti-forest destruction moves saying that it unfairly targeted members of certain communities - some who now have title deeds to some of the affected lands.

Then there are those who have supported the Government's actions, arguing that this was the only way it could safeguard vital water catchment areas and - by extension - the extensive livestock-based pastoralist economy.

"Raila will definitely witness the ongoing destruction first hand," says the coordinator of the Kenya Forestry Working Group, Mr Michael Gachanja.

For the Prime Minister though , it might be a tricky matter because his statement will indeed balance between making pronouncements that might jeopardise his popularity in the Rift Valley, which is the bedrock of support to the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM).

Cater for lives

It will also be some sort of a dilemma for the Prime Minister because he is expected by most Kenyans to protect, guide and spearhead courses that cater for lives and livelihoods of millions.

However, for the conservationists, it is a straightforward matter.

"The Government should now go beyond making statements and implement a course of action that will safeguard the country's future," says Mr Gachanja.

Indeed, the report by Unep and other groups had asked the Government, through the KFS, to "prevent further encroachment" and to settle the more than 1,000 people with titles "elsewhere and to consider removing the squatters".

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