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Politics of Mau forest return to haunt the nation

By Steve Mkawale | March 10th 2018
Cabinet secretary for ministry of information communication and technology Joe Mucheru assisted by scouts of Moi educational center to plant a tree on 9th March 2018 during the 24th prize giving day.[Edward Kiplimo,Standard]

Last week, Deputy President William Ruto issued a ban on logging in government and communal forests in a bid to stop rampant destruction of natural forests that has led to drying up of rivers.

Although the order was seen as urgent intervention by the government to safeguard the country’s natural resources, it rekindled memories of politics of conservation that played out at the expense of the future of the nation.

Since late 1990s, political leaders have been engaging in blame game over conservation of the Mau Forest complex, one of the country’s three water towers, located in the Rift Valley. Efforts by successive governments to stem destruction of Mau Forest have failed because of either lack of commitment or politics of the day.

It is now a fact that after paying little attention to Mau forest conservation, the effects are being felt.

Rivers whose source is the forest are drying up with devastating effects to millions of people who depend on them and to the national economy.

In July 2005, the government made a hard decision to remove all beneficiaries who have title deeds for parcels of land but because of political matrix in preceding years, they were allowed back.

They went back when the government was pushing for the passage of the Wako Draft of the proposed Constitution in November 2005.

After the July 2005 infamous eviction, then Lands Minister Amos Kimunya said land to resettle evictees had been identified in Rongai in Nakuru.

But politicians led by Ruto who were then in opposition, led the squatters in refusing to relocate, arguing that land in Rongai was of low value and not as fertile as Mau.

Later in 2007 when President Kibaki was seeking re-election, new settlements sprung up with the government looking the other side. But matters were made harder during the Kibaki succession politics.

In 2008, shortly after formation of the government of national unity, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga embarked on a mission to conserve the forest through compensating squatters who lay claim on some sections of the larger 480,000 hectare Mau Complex to pave way for reclamation and rehabilitation.

His office assembled donors to fund the mission. European Union (EU) was to be the lead agency and offered Sh70 million for the restoration efforts spearheaded by the office of the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister’s office in consultation with Office of the President appointed a Mau TaskForce to explore how the forest would have been saved and how beneficiaries could be resettled elsewhere.

When its report was handed over to Raila, he formed a Mau Forest Steering Committee that was headed by Hassan Noor, a former Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner to implement the report.

After verification of claimants and valuation of their parcels of land was done, the committee presented a Sh3.7 billion proposal to the Treasury at the time President Uhuru Kenyatta was the Finance Minister, to compensate 7,000 families inside Maasai Mau.

“Had it been honored the problems now in the section would have been behind us,” said Mr Noor.

By the time the steering committee was winding up, the money had not been released.

But President Kibaki’s succession politics carried the day leading to collapse of the project as donors who had committed billions of shillings pulled out. Raila suffered the wrath of voters in the Rift Valley in the 2013 General Election.

After being vilified over plans to evict families living in Mau forest to allow rehabilitation efforts, Raila has finally been vindicated.

“I’m ready to go back to Kibra and sell mandazi if that will be the price to pay for saving Mau forest,” Raila told Parliament.

Systematic encroachment on most of 22 blocks that form the complex started about three decades ago through government sanctioned excision and outright invasion.

Narok Senator Ledama ole Kina, says it is sad that the government is now taking about conserving forests yet most powerful people have interests in land and forest products.

Politics, he says should be divorced from conservation issues, claiming that settlements in Mau will not end until after the 2022 General Election.

“Some people think the Uhuru succession will be disturbed if squatters will be removed soon. The ongoing talk about logging ban and seriousness in conserving forests is just but hot air,” he says.

Dennis Onyango, the former PM spokesperson, wonders why trees that take 90 years to mature were destroyed before a 90-day ban on logging was imposed.

“When red flag was raised about the destruction, some people who are now giving the ban directive played politics with the matter. Will the 90 days help regenerate Mau?” he asks.

Kericho Senator Aaron Cheruiyot, says politics has never played any role in conserving Mau and absolves the DP of claims that he shielded claimants from being given alternative land before the 2013 General Election.

“Whenever Mau is mentioned, people, for no reason, associate it with the DP yet he has been in the forefront in championing for its conservation,” he says.

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