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Confusion as Chetambe residents are ordered to vacate forest land

WESTERN
By Robert Amalemba | August 1st 2021
Chetambe Hills resident Agnes Nanzekho is among those resisting the move by the government to gazette Chetambe Hills as a forest. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

Agnes Nandekho, 80, sits pensively outside her mud-walled house on Chetambe Hills.

She ponders a decision by the Environment ministry to gazette the piece of land she occupies as government property.

She is among about 30,000 residents who risk being evicted following a gazette notice issued on June 25 declaring the space as forest land.

“I was puzzled when I heard over the radio that I am occupying State land. The piece is a subdivision from a 60-acre ancestral land that belonged to Echoroti Kisaka, who distributed it to his sons, one of whom was my late husband, Charles Chiloti,” she says.

“I was married in 1964. I have stayed on this parcel uninterrupted and even witnessed it being shared out to family members without a fuss. Where is the State coming from,” she posed.

Bungoma ecosystem conservator Vitalis Osodo says those who have encroached on the land should move out.

“Things are clear that the State will not relent in its efforts to reclaim the government land. I don’t think we are going to negotiate on that matter,” Osodo said.

His words come some three years after Environment CS Keriako Tobiko, while at Sang’alo Technical Institute, asked Bungoma County Commissioner to evict the occupiers of the 1,003 acres forest land.

Majority of residents said they were not against vacating the land, but wanted the exercise to be done in a decent and dignified manner.

Zaitun Kombo, a widow who has stayed on a three-acre parcel on the hills since 1972, says she will only move if the State compensates her. She noted that she has all the documentation to support her occupancy.

While at Sang’alo, the CS said some people, especially politicians, had fraudulently acquired title deeds for the land they occupy.

The occupants were given a notice but the government had never formalised the eviction.

“In the mid-1980s the State served us with written notices. But the truth is most of us were born here,” said David Lukoye, a village elder.

Lukoye, however, said he will only move if he is shown an alternative place to relocate to.

He refuted State claims that the residents were compensated in the early 1970s, saying that if there was any compensation, then it was done unfairly.

A former chief, Stephen Murumba, said the State ought to review the entire compensation process before embarking on mass evictions.

“I was Mihuu assistant chief in the 1970s. No one in my area was paid to vacate the land. But people from the neighbouring Muji Sub-location were paid between Sh3,000 and Sh60,000 to vacate. Many moved and settled elsewhere, but some returned to their former land,” he said.

The 88-year-old Murumba urged the Environment ministry to go back to its compensation records to identify those who missed out and issue a map that will demarcate the actual space claimed by the State.

Bungoma Governor Wycliffe Wangamati on Thursday urged Tobiko to exercise sobriety on the "delicate eviction matter" because many households were involved.

“I urge my brother CS Tobiko to do thorough background checks before making any decision,” he said.

Wangamati spoke after issuing bursaries to some 3,500 needy Bungoma students in Webuye East Sub-county.

If the eviction notice is implemented, half of Webuye town, several government offices, part of Pan Paper factory, an interchange on the Great North Road and a National Cereals and Produce Board depot would be crushed to pave way for the forest.

Tens of Webuye town businessmen are also itching to file petitions to block the notice.

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