Wilson Memusi, 68, is a member of a local indigenous forest-dwelling community who have inhabited Mau forest complex for years.
Memusi has watched with shock as the destruction of what he describes as his home continues unabated over the last three decades.
“What worries me most is that the destruction of Mau is fuelled by bad politics, corruption and failure by the political class to listen to conservationists,” he says, as he scans the horizon for what has remained of the vital water catchment area from his home in Narok South Constituency.
Once again the Maasai Mau part of the vast water tower is generating serious political and environmental interest as it is fast mutating to became a classical case study of resource-based conflict, with far-reaching repercussions to the neighboring counties and countries.
Jack Raini, an environmental conservationist based in Nakuru County, says in the past two decades, the Mau forest complex has undergone significant land use changes, due to an increased human population demanding land for settlement and substance farming.
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“As we speak here now, the effect of the settlements that have led to destruction of the forest is being felt and is slowly taking a toll on us and people in the neighbouring countries. This is evident in the diminishing river discharge during periods of low flows, and the deterioration of river water quality, through pollution at source,” Mr Raina, of the Flamingo Net Environmental Organisation, told Sunday Standard.
Decades-old politically instigated encroachment, which started after Independence in 1963 and accelerated in the 80s and 90s, has led to extensive illegal, irregular and ill-planned settlements.
Now, the two-decade festering Mau forest settlement issue is a sore thumb in the nation’s collective conscience.
According to various sources and government records, the encroachment of the 46,000 hectares Maasai Mau section - that forms part of the 22 forest blocks that make up 480,000 hectares of the Mau forest complex - started when five ranches were being sub-divided.
The group ranches in question were; Sisian, Enoosogon, Enkaroni, Enainkishomi and Reiyo, that were being sub-divided for members ownership.
According to Rift Valley Regional Commissioner George Natembeya, the acreage of these ranches were illegally extended into the government forest to accommodate what he called “acceptees,” who included powerful people in previous regimes.
“The ranches’ officials acting in tandem with the defunct Narok County Council, the then provincial administration, and Lands ministry officials decided to extend the boundaries to accommodate more,” said the senior administrator spearheading the current reclamation of 17,000 acres of the forest land that was irregularly allocated.
When the ranch officials sought extension of land to the forest, the county council -- which was holding it in trust for communities in Narok -- raised no objection, which aided further encroachment.
“The extension led to encroachment on to the forest by about 17,101 acres,” Natembeya says, adding that Enainkishomi in the then Ololulunga Adjudication Section, original parcels of land were 115 and registered hectares 1,275.5.
“It was increased by 9,271.5 hectares, an excess of 7,996, making 452 parcels illegal,” he adds.
Records obtained by Sunday Standard further reveal that in Reiyo group ranch in Nkoben Adjudication Section, original parcels were 34 in a registered area of 26.0 hectares.
“The hectares were increased to 878.6, an excess of 852.6, making 336 parcels illegal,” according to a confidential government document detailing the illegal encroachment.
Sisian in Ilmotiok Adjudication Section original parcels were 375 in a registered area of 443.5 hectares.
When allocation was done, it increased to 1,215.6, an excess of 772.1 hectares, rendering 340 parcels illegal.
At Enkaroni in formerly Ololulunga Adjudication Section, original parcels were 188 in a registered area of 1,097.0 hectares.
But when surveying was done, it ballooned to 1,215.6 hectares, an excess of 772.1 which rendered 676 illegal.
Enoosogon in the same adjudication section as Enkaroni, original parcels were 110 in a registered area of 155.0 hectares. When the allocation was done, it was extended into the forest by 653 hectares, an excess of 158 parcels.
Another document from the archives of the defunct Narok County Council, showed the forest was further encroached in 1999 when councilors through a full council resolution, decided to settle what they called “landless councillors”. Councillors were given land in the forest, exacerbating encroachment and degradation.
Most councillors sold their parcels of land and made quick money. When former President Kibaki took power in December 2002, conservationists hoped that his administration would address the matter and ensure that land hived off the forest would be returned.
In July 2005, some 12,000 families inside the forest were forcibly evicted but because Kibaki’s government was keen on passage of the Wako draft on the proposed new Constitution, which was facing stiff opposition, and so it allowed the evictees back.
It was at the same time that the early warning system division of the the United Nations Environment Programme, based in Nairobi, released a report that painted a grim picture of the destruction in the Mau forest complex.
The report stated in part; “Kenya stands to lose an economic worth over Sh30 billion if the destruction of Mau complex continued,” the 2008, UN Environment report warned.
The bleak data was worrying but little was being done to address the situation.
In 2009, the then Prime Minister Raila Odinga appointed a special task force on the conservation of the Mau.
In their report, the expert task force noted that between 1994 and 2009, some 107,707ha, representing 25 per cent of the Mau complex, had been converted into settlements and farmlands under the pretext of settling the landless poor – not to mention inconsistent forest policies by succeeding governments.
The task force report went on to give a stark warning: “In 2001, 61,587 hectares of forest in the Mau Complex were excised.
In addition, an estimated 29,000 hectares have been encroached in the remaining protected forests of the Mau Complex, while over 17,000 hectares were illegally allocated in Maasai Mau alone.
Such an extensive and on-going destruction of a key natural asset for the country is a matter of national emergency. It presents significant environmental, economic and security threats.
Most of the illegal encroachment was by prominent personalities during the Kanu era.
To save the Mau Complex, the task force recommended the establishment of a 24km cut-line, to act as a buffer between the forest and human settlements, and called for the evictions of illegal settlers within the complex.
The government has been struggling to implement this rule, just as it has wavered on its previous conservation ideals, largely due to competing political interests.
Inter-communal conflict between the Maasai, Kalenjin and Ogiek communities who are settled there is now festering as politicians focus on ‘their people’ in terms of voters and ignore the impending ecological calamity.
According to Environment Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko, more than 430,000ha of the Mau Forest Complex is now classified by the Kenyan government as a fragile biodiversity hotspot under threat.
According to Tobiko, some of the Rift Valley politicians opposed to the second phase of the evictions own land in the forest.
Tobiko says of 7,800 people who occupy the forest land, only 722 possess title deeds, which the state has declared illegal.
He further reveals that another 4,400 settlers were in possession of either sale agreements or letters of allotment, which the state does not recognise. Another 2,500 people occupying the 17,000 acres of land said to be part of the forest, a key water tower, do not have any document to prove ownership.
“First these are not valid land documents, but if we assume for argument sake that they are genuine, they are only 722. And the holders of the title deeds are not ordinary citizens, they are not the fellows you hear have nowhere to go; miserable, No! They are the ‘who-is-who’ in this country, fellows who already have property elsewhere and may be, very likely-outside the country,” said the CS.
Tobiko accuses a section of Rift Valley politicians opposed to the impending eviction of settlers from the forest of “running about, holding press conferences, lobbying and jumping from office to another - to incite the masses against the restoration of the Mau forest.”
“They are the ones, the men... I think they are all men... the men of means, who have property in this country. They are the ones who are pushing behind the scenes for compensation by the government because they have a stake,” he adds.
It is possible that people, including former powerful government officers, were allocated land in a sensitive place without government’s knowledge -- from setting aside land as an adjudication section, to surveying and issuance of title deeds and the accompanying Green Card.
On his part, Natembeya reveals that some 40 title deeds accounting for some 5,000 acres had been surrendered by some of the prominent personalities who had illegally benefitted during the Kanu days.
Has no claim
So far, about 12,000 acres of land have been recovered, with over 8,000 people evicted. The second phase of the evictions target 60,000 people. But Rift Valley leaders oopposed to the evictions say the land does not belong to the government.
Leader of Majority in the Senate Kipchumba Murkomen says the government has no claim on the land where the settlers live, adding that the land belongs to the County of Narok and should the government wish to acquire it, it should use constitutional means.
“All those with genuine claim over the forest land must have paid the Stamp Duty to the government. The land belongs to the people, if the government wants it, it should acquire it compulsorily,” he said.
Kericho Senator Aaron Cheruiyot, one of the leaders, claims that the ongoing evictions are aimed at settling political scores.
“It is a political operation because it is aimed at reducing the number of a certain community in Narok County,” says the senator.