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September 29, 2009

Deforestation blamed for ecological crisis in Kenya

by James Morgan

High in the hills of Kenya's Mau forest, some 20,000 families are facing eviction from their farms - accused of contributing to an ecological disaster which has crippled the country.The authorities are to start the process of removing them any day now. Farmers will be asked to surrender their title deeds for inspection. If their documents are genuine, they have a chance of being resettled, or compensated.

If not, they will simply be told to go. "We are afraid. Not only me, but all of us here," says Kipkorir Ngeno, a teacher and a father of six. "They call us squatters - a very bad name. But this is my land. It is not illegal."

Mr Ngeno is one of those accused of responsibility for droughts which have left millions of Kenyans thirsty for water and hungry for retribution.

Mau forest is Kenya's largest water tower - it stores rain during the wet seasons and pumps it out during the dry months. But during the last 15 years, more than 100,000 hectares - one quarter of the protected forest reserve - have been settled and cleared. Tearing out the trees at the heart of Kenya has triggered a cascade of drought and despair in the surrounding valleys. The rivers that flow from the forest are drying up. And as they disappear, so too have Kenya's harvests, its cattle farms, its hydro-electricity, its tea industry, its lakes and even its famous wildlife parks.

The finger of blame is being pointed at the settlers in Mau. And the solution, according to a special task force appointed by Prime Minister Raila Odinga, is to uproot the invaders and replant the trees. Of 20,000 families living in the forest, they estimate that perhaps as few as 1,962 have genuine title deeds.

"We must act now - before the entire ecosystem is irreversibly damaged," said Mr Odinga."We are looking at securing the livelihoods and economies of millions of Africans who directly and indirectly depend on the ecosystem."

The prime minister was speaking at the United Nations - appealing for donations of 7.6bn shillings ($100m; £63.5m) to "rehabilitate" Kenya's water supply. If he does not act, he foresees a struggle for water and land which could escalate into a bloody civil conflict. Because in the valleys downstream of Mau forest, farmers like Peter Ole Nkolia are running out of water, cattle, and patience.

"Those people up there need to just move," says Mr Nkolia, as he stands by the carcass of a dead cow. "If the destruction of Mau shall continue I can assure you that a lot of people will suffer. "What you are going to see here in Narok is just the skeletons of cattle - and maybe people."

Worse still, the water from Mau quenches thirst far beyond Kenya. Its rivers feed Tanzania's Serengeti and keep the fishermen of Lake Victoria afloat. When you consider that Lake Victoria is the source of the Nile, you begin to grasp the scale of the crisis the Kenyan government is facing.

"This is no longer a Kenyan problem," said Mr Odinga. "Tanzania and Egypt are feeling the heat from the Mau."

And the implications go beyond the environment. This has the potential to create insecurity as people squabble over dwindling resources." Chopping down the tree cover in Mau has removed a natural "pump" which keeps the ecosystem alive.

"It rains a lot in Kenya - but only in the rainy seasons. Then you have four long months with not a drop," explains Christian Lambrechts, from the Nairobi-based UN Environment Programme (UNEP). "So you need a buffer zone - a way to ration the rain water and release it slowly into the rivers in the dry season. That buffer is the forest. "If you remove this ecosystem, you reduce the moisture reservoir. Which means that in the dry season... 'Hakuna maji'. No water."

When the rains in Kenya stop falling, the 12 rivers which stem from the Mau forest are the lifeline for about 10 million people. And this year in Kenya, the rains failed badly. Narok county - the breadbasket of Kenya - was a barren dustbowl in April, the wettest month of the year. The government declared a "national emergency" with 10 million Kenyans facing starvation. Cattle keeled over and died, in their millions. And as the drought worsened, Kenyan government was forced to bail out farmers by slaughtering their weak animals for just 8,000 shillings ($105; £65) a head.

In western Kenya, the tea plantations of James Finlay, which feed on the rivers of western Mau, have seen their yields cut to 80%. And the town of Kericho experienced water rationing for the first time in a generation. ildlife tourism - another pillar of Kenya's economy - is wilting in the heat. Lake Nakuru, the birdwatcher's paradise, is disappearing. The rivers that feed it have run dry. And in the Masai Mara, the river which hosts the world famous "crossing of the wildebeest" has fallen to its lowest ever level. Water scarcity has brought wild animals and farmers into conflict. Deaths, injuries and compensation claims are at record highs in Narok, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

The fuse for all these disasters was lit in Mau. "The Mau, in a sense, is the hen that lays the golden eggs," says Paul Udoto, of KWS. "The eggs are Lake Nakuru, the Masai Mara, the tea plantations... the farming that is being done by pastoralists. "Once you destroy the centre - the hen - that is the Mau - then by necessity you have to lose the golden eggs."

But can deforestation really be to blame for all these catastrophes? After all, there have always been cyclical droughts in Kenya. The trouble is that these droughts are becoming more frequent, more severe and less predictable. Particularly since 2001 - the year when 60,000 hectares of Mau were allocated to settlers and cleared.

"At a time when the climate in Kenya is becoming drier, that is when you need to boost your ecosystem - to help it to absorb the impact of climate variability," says Mr Lambrechts. "Go in the opposite direction, and you are going to feel those impacts much bigger. That is what we are currently feeling."

Mr Lambrechts is one of 30 officials recruited to the task force by Prime Minister Odinga. Their report, published in July, set out in painstaking detail how more than 100,000 hectares - one quarter of the entire forest reserve - was parcelled up and cleared for settlement.

Almost 20,000 land parcels were "excised" by the governments of Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki, and handed out to farmers - which helped to boost the two presidents' popularity in the run-up to elections. At the time, much of these excised land parcels were promised to Ogiek peoples, the original forest dwellers. But the title deeds ended up largely in the hands of local officials and incoming settlers.

Meanwhile, in the southern Maasai Mau forest, almost 2,000 plots were illegally purchased within the protected forest reserve, with the help of local officials. Plots known as "group ranches" were expanded, subdivided and then sold on to third parties, unaware that their new title deeds may be "irregular" or "bogus". Finally, large chunks of the forest were simply occupied and squatted - "encroached" to use the official terminology - by settlers with no title claim whatsoever.

The task force insists that almost all of these settlers and land owners should leave the forest as soon as possible. But how many deserve compensation? This is a political tightrope for Prime Minister Odinga.The task force has promised that each family will have their claim heard on a "case-to-case basis." All holders of "genuine" title deeds will be compensated - perhaps even those high-ranking public officials who are named by the task force as having received land via irregular means.

A search for new land to resettle farmers is underway, but is already provoking controversy. "I hope when they go to the World Bank they won't get any money," says Professor Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Laureate and environmental campaigner. "The only reason why we are being held hostage with the Mau is because people who were in power want to be compensated."

But perhaps the biggest challenge of all facing Kenya is the ecological one - the co-ordinated replanting of 100,000 hectares of indigenous forest. It will take decades to restore the canopy - years in which Kenyans will continue to suffer from the double-whammy of local land degradation and global climate change.

Yet among environmentalists there is some relief that, at last, Kenya has woken up to a disaster that has been brewing for decades. Countless warnings have gone unheeded, as Ms. Maathai can testify. "I keep telling people, let us not cut trees irresponsibly... especially the forested mountains," she says. "Because if you destroy the forests, the rivers will stop flowing and the rains will become irregular and the crops will fail and you will die of hunger and starvation. "Now the problem is, people don't make those linkages." In Kenya this year, everyone is making those linkages.


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