Focus now shifts to compensation as Mau evictions near

Herders troop out of Maasai Mau forest on September 1, 2019 following an eviction order by the government. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Restoring the plundered area requires Sh250,000 per hectare, which translates to Sh4.3 billion for the 17,101 hectares, according to a source at the Kenya Water Towers Agency.
  • The government’s overriding concern is that the whole allocation was irregular — whether or not public servants were involved.
  • Narok County Council is in the eye of the storm over the plunder of the forest; some of the disputed allocations followed resolutions of the Council.

To compensate or not to compensate is the elephant in the room as authorities move to evict about 5,000 families from the troubled Maasai Mau forest.

The removal scheduled for end of next month has sharply divided political leaders in the expansive Rift Valley region.

The stakes are high. Environmentalists and Narok politicians want the settlers out while human rights activists and other leaders outside Maasailand demand humane evictions as well as compensation for possible loss of livelihood.

For its part, the government is opposed to any form of compensation, insisting it can only pursue the fraudsters who infiltrated the forest and sold out land to unsuspecting buyers.

“There are big people who did this, now small people are being used as shields. If we decide to compensate, who are we going to? It is the big people,” Rift Valley Regional Commissioner George Natembeya says.

About 17,101 hectares of the forest’s original 45,743.8 hectares (in 1990s) have gone, in addition to 32,000 hectares of its reserve.

COSTLY TASK

The encroachment, which continues, began in the late 1990s when officials of five neighbouring group ranches — Sisiyan, Reiyo, Nkaroni, Enaikishomi and Enoosokon — colluded with public servants to expand their boundaries by hiving off parts of the forest.

From 3,975.5 hectares under their jurisdiction, they extended to 18,078.2, an increase of 14,103.7.

Based on the Green Cards, of the 6,299.61 hectares transferred to third parties in the forest, only 1,892.49 have been transferred to third-party purchasers “for value”, meaning the monetary value of it.

The total purchase value is Sh8.8 million. Yet compensation would guzzle in excess of Sh1.5 billion — at a cost of Sh735,000 per hectare for the 1,892.49 hectares that were purchased “for value”.

And if the State compensates for the entire land transferred to third parties, the amount will shoot to Sh4.6 billion, excluding properties and other development on the pieces.

Restoring the plundered area requires Sh250,000 per hectare, which translates to Sh4.3 billion for the 17,101 hectares, according to a source at the Kenya Water Towers Agency.

TITLE DEEDS

Yet even if the government were to give in to compensation demands, it would be a Herculean task to isolate deserving cases.

Only three people have so far responded to Mr Natembeya’s call to present title deeds to ascertain claims of ownership.

The latest reports indicate that the government is seeking to prosecute architects of the plunder, among them top officials of the five group ranches, land registrars and surveyors who served at the time.

But its stand against compensation isn’t going well with a number of leaders.

“If there was illegality, it was by the government. If the area is illegal, then how come it has schools, police post, roads, electricity?” asks former Bomet Governor Isaac Ruto, the leader of the Chama Cha Mashinani party.

“There must be compensation, if the government seeks compulsory acquisition,” he says.

REASONS FOR PAYOUT

Mr Ruto says it is possible to conserve Mau without depriving people of their livelihoods. “But if you burn houses at a go, you are declaring a war; you are not declaring an environmental concern.”

The impending evictions will be the third in a demi-decade, as authorities attempt to restore this ecological birthplace of the essential Mara and Ewaso Ngiro rivers.

As always, the issue of compensation has polarised the population and imperilled every possible solution to the Mau tragedy.

Those pushing for compensation are driven by five compelling reasons. One, the forest is yet to be surveyed, gazetted and titled. Two, the place is trust land.

Three, some of the land pieces have titles, implying the government was involved and very aware of the transactions.

Four, by putting up infrastructure in the area, the government itself appears to have given a thumbs up to the settlements. Five, the State has been shuffling boundaries at will.

The government’s overriding concern is that the whole allocation was irregular — whether or not public servants were involved.

Once you lay ground for compensation, there would be many fake claims — just like the “irregular” titles, the State believes.

CORRUPT OFFICIALS

Either way, the involvement of State officials in the plunder is likely to turn the Maasai Mau restoration into a legal minefield.

Indeed, advocates of compensation say the government is punishing innocent people to cover the folly of its corrupt officers.

“The entire government — provincial administrators, the Narok County Council, land registrars, surveyors, forest officers — were involved” in the allocations, according to Mr Christopher Bore, a former chief of the area, who, as a member of the Raila Task Force, declined to append his signature on the final report on the basis that its recommendations were skewed against the settlers.

“Where was the government [when the encroachment happened]? How were titles issued? Let’s first accept that the government failed to protect the forest. It’s the government that allowed the encroachment,” argues Dr David ole Sankok, a nominated MP from Narok.

He adds: “The government should swallow its pride and bite the bullet. It should bear responsibility. If it cannot protect its people against unscrupulous individuals, then it is to blame,” he says.

Inexplicably, unlike the rest of the 22 forest blocs that make up the Mau Forest Complex, Maasai Mau Forest is neither gazetted nor titled and this raises questions about its legal status.

TRUSTLAND

In official documents, it’s a trustland — a chunk registered in the name of a community or group.

Before 2010 change of Constitution, these lands were under the trustee of their respective county councils.

Narok County Council is in the eye of the storm over the plunder of the forest; some of the disputed allocations followed resolutions of the Council.

According to documents available, of the 7,989 allocations as at 2010, only 712 have what Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko calls “irregular” titles, those whose authenticity is in question.

Among the holders is retired army officer Zephaniah Ruto (aka Sierra Leone), 64, who has four titles for separate pieces.

After purchasing the land, he embarked on investments that included a two-acre plot he turned into a trading centre he named “Sierra Leone” following his peacekeeping stint in this west African nation.

“I acquired them in 2000 and 2001. They are genuine. We are not leaving. I am an old man; I don’t want any compensation. All I want is to stay here. I am not even ready for relocation,” he says.

BOUNDARY

Mr Eric Bett Kiplagat, another retired soldier, vows, thus: “If they want to get us from here, then there must be full compensation”.

By gerrymandering, the Jubilee government didn’t make things better. In 2015 while very conscious of the dispute, the government established a cutline that was over six kilometres into the forest.

This boundary, buffered by the Nyayo Tea Zone, effectively separated the forest from the settled area.

The tea cutline has become another source of contradiction, controversy and confusion.

The establishment of the tea zone and the development of schools and roads in an area the government considers forest is a bit baffling.

Critics use this to advance their argument that the government had, by default, alienated the area for human settlement.

The government has since disowned the tea plantation. It also says the schools have no teachers on government payroll.

“There’s no reason to punish taxpayers when the culprits are at large. Why should we pay for an illegality? Those who sold land should be made to pay for the sin,” says Prof Meitamei Olol Dapash, a resident of Narok and a veteran advocate of environment and indigenous rights.

THE SAGA

A casual glance at encroached area shows that about two in five of the plots have no residences or housing structures, suggesting a case of absentee owners.

The vexing question of compensation has lingered for years. In 2009, a proposal to pay Mau landlords billions of shillings was floated and later shelved after it provoked outrage with many Kenyans, arguing that the Mau settlers should not be paid because the Ndung’u Commission of Inquiry into irregular allocations of land indicated that Mau landlords obtained the land illegally.

A Cabinet memo titled "Cabinet memorandum on the progress of implementation of the Mau Task Force Report" had placed compensation figures between Sh2 billion and Sh8.7 billion.

United Nations Environment Programme had earlier placed the value of the land held mainly by influential Kanu-era politicians at Sh2 billion.

In tomorrow’s paper: The Moi question and the destruction of Eastern Mau

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