Mau forest restoration pays off, but issue still a political time bomb

Olmekenyu IDP camp

Families play at Olmekenyu IDP camp outside Mau forest. Several families were  n

Photo credit: Vitalis Kimutai | Nation Media Group

A hike through the picturesque Mau forest, the largest indigenous montane forest in East Africa and one of the region’s most important water towers, is an exhilarating experience.

The forest is breathing back to life, the bushes and the trees regenerating at an impressive pace.

Where homesteads once stood, cows freely grazed and children romped through the fields, Kenya Forest Service rangers hold vigil, watching every tree, shrub and blade of grass grow back to life in one of the 22 blocks that for the forest.

It was the eviction of settlers from the forest that hastened the collapse of the political alliance between Mr Raila Odinga and Mr William Ruto, who served under President Mwai Kibaki’s grand coalition government between 2008 and 2013 as prime minister and Agriculture Cabinet minister respectively.

The once staunch allies and co-founders of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) have never seen eye-to-eye since, and are now in the middle of a fierce presidential election duel where the Mau is again becoming a campaign issue. The only difference this time around is that on reclamation of the forest, they are now largely singing the same song.

Regeneration of the Mau is evident, and highly impressive. Trees and shrubs are back where they had been cut down to make way for human encroachment, settlement and farming. The undulating hills are now covered with trees of all shapes and sizes. The chirping of birds, butterflies fluttering through the air, and all types of insects and other creatures, big and small playing their role in the wondrous architecture of nature, offer living testimony to what is taking place.

A 30-kilometre fence now marks the boundaries of the expansive habitat, as forest rangers supplemented by police stations on the fringes and deep inside it guard against intruders.

The separation of the fence and the forest is so clear that it does not need the rangers here to testify that regeneration is going on.

The Nation visited the forest from the Tendwet side in Narok South and were let in to what has been a breath-taking success at reclaiming what is one of the continent’s most important water towers.

Nothing prepares you for the new Mau forest, even when using what was a road that connected Tendwet through Saptet and onwards to Plot in Olenguruone in Nakuru County.

Here, what were schools—more than 10 of them—are being swallowed by the new growth, as trees that had previously been used as boundaries aim for the sky. 

More have sprout on what was once dusty patches where boys and girls out on a lesson break jumped around in the usual fun and games.

We drove for half an hour through the forest, passing through reminders of human settlement: A roofless timber house here, fully grown bananas there, clear signs of land partitions and previous maize farms on another side, and the constant array of flower beds surrounding what was previously residential houses.

Ms Mary Lang’at, who told us she lived in the forest before she was flushed out alongside others last year, is one of the many locals that have now been contracted to plant indigenous trees inside the forest.

They are let into the forest in the morning with clear records of how many trees to plant, before being signed out late afternoon.

It is a classic case of the poacher becoming a gamekeeper.

The UN Environment Programme estimates that the Mau forest has "the potential to generate over 500MW of power or about 40 per cent of Kenya’s current total generating capacity", and warns that its destruction could cost the country Sh30 billion a year.

"Annual contribution of the Mau Forest Complex, Cherangany Hills, and Mt Elgon ecosystems is estimated to be Sh197 billion, Sh46 billion and Sh11 billion, respectively," according to a Kenya Forest Research Institute report titled Economic Value of the Mau Forest, Cherangany Hills and Mt Elgon Water Towers.

But the gently undulating hills of this important environmental resource, however, belies the battle of nature versus nurture, a big conservation battle mixed with the potency of politics that has characterised elections in the South Rift, and indeed the Rift Valley, for the last 15 years.

On one hand is Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition presidential candidate, Mr Odinga, whose large following in the Rift Valley in 2007 dissipated in 2013 partly due to his push for the eviction of illegal squatters in the expansive forest.

On the other side is Mr Ruto, the leader of Kenya Kwanza Alliance, who in 2013 exploited the Mau forest fallout to bargain for deputy president position in the Jubilee government.

Now, Mr Odinga and Dr Ruto are reading from the same script on conservation of the forest as election clock ticks.

Mr Odinga said during a meeting with South Rift leaders in Nairobi last month that a programme for resettlement of the Mau evictees during the grand coalition government stalled as a result of stiff opposition from politicians from the Rift Valley.

"We had secured support from donors to resettle the families and conserve the water tower. But incitement and interference by politicians led to the collapse of the noble programme," said Mr Odinga, adding that if elected President, his administration will sort out the mess once and for all.

Despite stiff opposition to the recent eviction spearheaded by Environment CS Keriako Tobiko and former Rift Valley regional commissioner George Natembeya and rooting for resettlement and compensation of the affected families, Dr Ruto has lately made a U-turn on the matter by backing conservation efforts.

"Mau conservation has been used to divide communities in Rift Valley in the past. But I want to assure you that we have sorted the issue with the settlers being evicted from the forest. People were evicted in my term as deputy president, if I did not want to happen; I would have opposed it," said Dr Ruto.

"What we now want is for a fence to be erected along the buffer zone to ensure the matter does not recur," said Mr Ruto in Narok during the launch of the campaign of former Labour CAS Patrick ole Ntutu, who is seeking the governor post.

In the past, the DP had said families were illegally evicted by the government that they had supported almost to a man in the last two elections. The DP then mobilised MPs and governors from Rift Valley to purchase construction materials for the families to put up makeshift structures and purchase food in what led him in a collision course with administrators.

Narok senator Ledama ole Kina and Narok North MP Moitalel ole Kenta are some of the most vocal Maasai leaders pushing for eviction of the settlers to pave the way for conservation of the forest.

Mr Kina has said the Maasai and their leaders would not backtrack on their bid to conserve the Mau complex, even with politics swirling around it.

Perhaps with the realisation of a political impact the Mau eviction issue has in the election, Mr Kina appeared to have extended an olive branch to the evictees, with the Kipsigis voters expected to provide a swing vote in the county election.

"During the struggle to conserve Mau forest, I made comments relating to the Kipsigis community which were interpreted as hateful, disrespectful and unprofessional. I regret making such comments and apologise to the community and seek their forgiveness," Mr Kina wrote on Twitter in April.

Nakuru Governor Lee Kinyanjui said the Mau evictions have become a thorn in the flesh of Rift Valley politics and should be sorted out as a matter of urgency.

"The Mau resettlement question is an issue that affects–Narok,  Nakuru, Kericho and Bomet counties– where the people settled around the resource comes from. It is incumbent upon us as leaders from the region and a government to resolve it now when we still can," said Mr Kinyanjui.

Kuresoi South and North, Molo and Njoro are the four constituencies in Nakuru counties that border the Mau forest complex.

After the eviction of the families in Narok County, a similar exercise in Njoro constituency was halted after intervention of Kanu chairman and Baringo Senator Gideon Moi. Interior CS Fred Matiangi then ordered the formation of an inter-governmental committee to look into the matter.

The team roped in representatives of the targeted families, to draw up a buffer zone between private farmlands and the government forests.

Mr Moi in a thinly veiled reference to Dr Ruto said in Bomet recently that it was unfortunate prominent leaders from the Rift Valley, who have been in government for the last 10 years have failed to sort out the issue.

Bomet Central MP Ronald Tonui said the government had failed to respect the sanctity of title deeds.

“We are talking of a government whose officers have blatantly broken the law, evicting families from their rightfully owned land while playing tribal politics. This matter is not a conservation issue at all, but one of disenfranchising a community," said Mr Tonui.

The MP accused President Uhuru Kenyatta of betraying the victims wondering what made him change his position after securing a second term in office, yet he had pledged to resettle the families. In 2005 when the first eviction was conducted, President Kenyatta while serving as Kanu chairman led politicians in donating foodstuffs and clothes to the affected families at Sogoo in Narok South.

He endeared himself to the residents of Rift Valley who backed him in the last two elections against Mr Odinga.

Chama Cha Mashinani (CCM) leader Isaac Ruto, the former Bomet county governor, has been vocal on the issue in the last 20 years. He says the government should compensate the affected families to close the chapter once and for all.

He argues that leaders from the region were not opposed to conservation of the Mau, but wanted the families who owned land compensated under compulsory acquisition laws.

The politicians are engaged in a delicate balancing act on the matter as they seek votes from the victims, but like in the past, the chances are high that it will be pushed to the back burner until the next election cycle.