|A section of the Embobut forest that has been invaded by squatters. [PHOTOs: FRED KIBOR/STANDARD]|
By KIBIWOTT KOROSS and FRED KIBOR
ELGEYO MARAKWET: Panic and uncertainty has gripped Kapsowar in Elgeyo Marakwet County following the expiry of a quit order to squatters living in Embobut Forest.
A survey by The Standard on Saturday has established that most of the squatters living in the forest are yet to purchase any piece of land. Others have vowed to stay put inside the forest despite the government having handed them each Sh400,000 to look for alternative pieces of land.
A 21-day quit notice expires early next week.
Late last year, the 2,874 families got an early Christmas gift of Sh400,000 that was to end a long squabble between them and the government which had accused them of destroying the forest.
The money was handed to the squatters in a ceremony presided over by President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto.
Most of those who are yet to buy land say they had either not found a suitable piece of land or the pieces they had identified were expensive. They are now asking the government to give them more time.
“We still have the money although we have used some. We are still waiting to see if the prices will drop this week when schools reopen and some parents sell some of their lands to pay fees for their children,” said Hellena Kattam, a beneficiary.
Kattam could however not explain why she had used some of the cash instead saving it to buy land.
Marakwet East MP Kangogo Bowen has asked the government for more time for the evictees to look for land elsewhere.
He said most of them had not found suitable land because locals in neighbouring Trans Nzoia and Elgeyo highlands had hiked the price of land.
“Everybody is taking advantage of the squatters. Currently an acre of land that was going for not more than Sh100,000 in the area now goes for about Sh300,000,” said the MP.
“The government should give them more time because buying land is not a simple issue. A long procedure has to be followed and we don’t want a situation where the squatters are sold non-existent pieces of land.”
Embobut forest is one of the major water towers in the Cherangani forest complex which feeds Rivers Arror and Kerio.
Kerio River has eventually receded, forcing Lake Kamnarok— which once had the largest population of crocodiles after Lake Chad — in Rimoi Game Reserve to dry up.
This area supplies Eldoret town and its environs with water. It also feeds the Kerio River which flows through Cheploch Gorge in Baringo to Lake Turkana via the Turkwel Gorge.
This has curtailed plans by the Elgeyo Marakwet county government to generate revenue from the Rimoi Game Reserve which is currently not attracting any tourists due to migration of wild animals to other parks like Nasolot in West Pokot County.
But North Rift Kenya Forest Services head of conservancy Solomon Mibei said the squatters have had enough time to exit the forest.
“The movement out of the forest is very slow. Some squatters have moved out while majority seem not to be ready. Their time is up and the only thing remaining is a forceful eviction should they extend their stay in the forest,” Mibei told The Standard Saturday on phone.
Successive governments had threatened the squatters with evictions. In 2009, the squatters had their houses set on fire, a move that attracted a public outcry from politicians, including the then Marakwet East MP Linah Jebii Kilimo who was brought up inside the forest.
Sources within the provincial administration say no police officer is allowed to proceed on leave while those who are on leave have been recalled, especially in Marakwet East and West sub counties, following the planned eviction.
The exercise is anticipated to be tense because most of the squatters are said to have squandered all their cash on women and beer.
Kapsowar town became abuzz with prostitutes, some from as far as Eldoret town, immediately the squatters received the money from the government.
Banks and financial institutions in the town recorded booming business, with long queues of people withdrawing cash extending past the normal hours of operation.
Our survey established that most of the bars in Kapsowar town operate 24 hours while lodgings are ever fully booked.
“I have seen new women in town moving from one bar to another. We have been recording good business. They (squatters) never ask for change and that is good to some of us,” said a bar attendant in Kapsowar town.
John Cheserek, a trader, said some squatters have set home in the town.
“I know of one man and his wife who spend all their time in a nearby bar. I tried talking to the wife but she abused me,” said Cheserek who operates a Kiosk near one of the bars. Lodgings in the town have raised the fee from Sh200 to as much as Sh1,000 per night.
Some reportedly went for holiday using the money. “I am thankful to the Jubilee Government for enabling me to go to Mombasa for christmas,” said a youthful squatter.
The price of an acre of land in the area ranges from Sh70,000 to Sh150,000. With Sh400,000, one can buy two acres and remain with enough money to build a decent house.
However, Marakwet West OCPD Philip Opiyo says some beneficiaries used their money to buy land.
“I am aware there is a new wave of drinking in the town but of late, these people have shifted base to other towns because their relatives have come to look for them,” he said.