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Reprieve for Ijara residents in row over forest once inhabited by militia

By Alphonce Shiundu | Published Sun, December 18th 2016 at 11:21, Updated December 18th 2016 at 11:25 GMT +3
Environment Cabinet Secretary Judi Wakhungu. (Photo: File/Standard)

Parliament is piling pressure on the government to surrender an expansive swathe of forest land to the Somali community in Ijara, Garissa County.

The National Assembly’s Committee on Environment and Natural Resources has, after listening to both sides, and visiting the area, asked Cabinet Secretary Judi Wakhungu to “immediately” revoke the legal notice she issued in February 2016, taking over the Boni/Ijara Forest.

The MPs have sided with residents in calling on the Kenya Forest Service to give up the Boni/Ijara forest, part of which was inhabited by Al Shabaab group who were terrorising residents in Garissa, Lamu and Tana River counties.

To the people of Garissa County, led by their Senator Yusuf Haji, who was the Minister for Defence when Kenya went to Somalia in pursuit of Al Shabaab, the forest is a source of livelihood, and even has a shrine where special prayers are held every eight years. The residents, the leaders claim, are pastoralists, and if their grazing land is fenced off, then, they will lose their livelihood.

Haji and Ahmed Ibrahim Abass, the MP for Ijara say gazettement of the forest was illegal.

“It is a community land. The community has occupied it from time immemorial and no pastoralist will allow the gazettement of their land,” said Abass, who succeeded Haji as the MP for Ijara constituency in 2013.

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The House team estimates that 220,000 cattle, 140,000 goats and 80,000 sheep benefit from the 350,000 acre forest.

Ecosystem protection

According to the Kenya Forest Service’s Director General Emilio Mugo, the government took over the forest because it was “committed to the sustainability of the ecosystem, security and environmental concerns”.

“Mr Mugo also stated that security concerns was part of the motivation for the gazettement,” reads a report seen by The Standard on Sunday.

The Kenyan military and other security forces have for months combed the forest in pursuit of Al Shabaab under Operation Linda Boni. The forest is close to the porous and poorly patrolled Kenya-Somalia border.

When she met MPs, Prof Wakhungu said the government simply implemented the community's wish that has been pursued for nearly five decades. “The gazettement was informed by a request from the community that had been pushing for the same as from the 1960s,” she said.

The House team has listened to the government side, to the MPs, and even went on the ground, and now, they have made a decision: The government made a mistake, and it now has to hand over the land to the community.

“From its investigations, the committee established that the communities living around Boni/Ijara forest were not adequately consulted before the gazettement of the Boni/Ijara Forest. This makes the gazettement illegal and irregular,” said the committee chaired by Amina Abdalla (nominated).

The MPs dismissed KFS and the minister for saying they had involved the residents in talks before the decision was taken.

“...the committee also established that no community leader was involved or was aware of any public participation carried out as claimed by the Kenya Forest Service,” the MPs said it their report. The MPs appear convinced that the forest is community land; and that if the government holds ontoit, then, thousands of people living in the area will lose their source of livelihood. In the view of the MPs, the government cannot wave the ‘conservation’ flag to lock the community out of the forest.

“Communities next to the Boni/Ijara Forest have lived harmoniously with the forest and have always conserved it; The forest provides various benefits to the local community, beside it being a source of pasture for their livestock, the community also attaches religious significance to it, as it is used as a shrine for the community where historical Quran recitation called “Mara Dheer” is carried every eight years,” reads the report.

Gazette notice

After rendering such an assessment, came the parliamentary committee verdict: “The Cabinet Secretary for the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources should immediately revoke the Gazette Notice No 943 dated February 3, 2016 and de-gazette the Boni/Ijara Forest.”

The committee issued the revocation order in a report tabled in the National Assembly before the lawmakers took their Christmas break following a petition from Ijara MP.

It is now in the in-tray of the House Committee on Implementation, which is chaired by Soipan Tuya (Narok County MP), whose job is to ensure the minister yields to the demands of the House.