Logging ban forced mass exodus from ‘timberland’


On the fringes of Mau Forest, a thriving timber trade led to an economic boom that led to growth of social amenities in central Rift Valley.

From Maji Mazuri, Elburgon, Mau Summit and Timboroa towns, business was flourishing through out the year due to great demand for timber products and free exchange of money for goods and services.

Out of the brisk trade emerged youthful millionaires, who have taken advantage of the lucrative business as the sleepy village centres flourished.

But the dilapidated, leaking and rusty rooftops are evidence of the dramatic decline in the fortunes of the once vibrant towns.

For residents, the rusting machines strewn in the compounds of the deserted saw mills in the region are a stark reminder of the towns’ golden days.

A ban on logging slapped in the 1999 led to thousands of workers employed directly or indirectly in the sector losing their jobs. Most of the centres, which heavily relied on the timber industry, have never recovered from the ban.

It was imposed following fears of an environmental disaster as a result of large-scale deforestation in Government forests. Mr Isaac Njihia, 56, recalls with nostalgia the good old days when Maji Mazuri centre flourished.

According to him, the timber business in the town started as early as 1946 during the colonial days.

“Maji Mazuri owes its foundation and existence to the timber trade as it allowed people to settle here from far and wide,” Njihia said.

A railway network which connected the area with major towns during the trade boom has since ceased to operate, with grass covering the line.

“The railway line used to transport logs to as far as Mombasa and Kisumu but all that came to a stop once the ban on logging came into effect,” Njihia, who was born in the area, says.

Closed saw mill

Maji Mazuri woes were compounded by the closure and relocation of one of the major sawmills in the area run by Timsales Limited, which rendered hundreds of local youths jobless.

Over 10 saw mills, which used to operate in the area also later closed shop, piling into the economic meltdown facing the centre and residents.

What was once a bustling town is currently in the throes of an economic disaster.

“As a result of the poverty caused by unemployment, we now have our youths hanging around the shopping centres,” 30-year-old Charles Kipkoskei says.

Kipkoskei says locals now rely on farming in the nearby Maji Mazuri Forest through the Plantation Establishment for Livelihood Improvement Scheme (Pelis).

Pelis is an improved version of the controversial shamba system where farmers tend to tree saplings on state-owned forestland in return for being permitted to intercrop perennial food crops until canopy closure.

The system with a controversial history was banned in 2003 but in 2008, field trials were initiated for its re-introduction.

“Through Community Forest Associations (CFA), most of us have been allocated half acre of land in the forest where we pay Sh500 to the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) annually,” says Jane Wangui

According to Wangui, the closure of 10 saw mills in the late 1990s sounded the death knell for Maji Mazuri town.

“Things were good in the past as we used to farm in the forest and did not pay a coin but when the ban was imposed things came to a halt,” she said. Locals say failure to issue them with title deeds for their parcels of land has compounded their problems.

Along the Nakuru–Molo road one comes across the once vibrant Elburgon town now a pale shadow of its former self.

For timber traders, Elburgon was an important player in the sector and attracted people from all corners of the country. The town’s famous Kasarani slums provided a safe haven for low-income earners working as casuals in the timber factories.

Daniel Githinji who used to run a sawmill in the area says out of the 30 sawmills in the area in 1990s only 10 are in operation.

“The wanton destruction of the forest led to the ban on logging robbing people of their livelihood,” he added. Ndirangu terms Elburgon as being in Intensive Care Unit with limited economic opportunities creating a sense of utter hopelessness among local youths.

But for most residents the town’s economic boom ended up benefiting outsiders at their expense.

“Tycoons who could afford to corrupt the system were issued with logging licences and took their profits elsewhere after exploiting our forests,” Ndirangu said.

Tribal clashes

The ban has however done little to contain the appetite for illegal timber logging and charcoal burning in the neighbouring forests.

Most of the timber towns are cosmopolitan as they managed to attract Kenyans from various corners owing to their economic potential.

As a result of their cosmopolitan nature Elburgon and Maji Mazuri were among the worst affected by the tribal clashes of the 90s and the post election violence.

The violence paved way for the destruction of the adjacent forests with illegal loggers having a field day.

But the introduction and promotion of sustainable livelihood programs has led to a decline in illegal activities in the forests.

“We want the Government to cooperate with us so that we can replenish forests like Marioshoni which were destroyed at the height of the timber business,” Elburgon resident Nimrod Babu Ndirangu says. The ban though popular at the time it was imposed has been blamed for causing timber scarcity in the country.

Over 300 saw mills were closed countrywide with the loss of 50,000 jobs directly and 300,000 indirectly. 95,000 acres of over mature forest plantation valued at Sh36 Billion are said to be undergoing value deterioration and due to heart rot and windfall.

The Kenya Forest Service recently placed orders for the tree harvesting in government forests in a bid to curb the waste of mature trees.

Youths however want the government to offer them an opportunity to venture in the business instead of depending on the older players.