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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Mau Forest depletion at the root of worsening droughts and conflicts

Wananchi  plant trees at Sururu in Mau forest in the new reafforestation bid the exercise was led by Green belt movement in 2010. They have now been uprooted and burnt for charcoal./BEN NDONGA
Wananchi plant trees at Sururu in Mau forest in the new reafforestation bid the exercise was led by Green belt movement in 2010. They have now been uprooted and burnt for charcoal./BEN NDONGA

Eight years ago, on a drizzly November evening, armed security officers entered the Mau forest and drove out the first group of illegal settlers.

The more than 30,000 settlers had over the years cut down trees, destroying over 100,000 hectares of Kenya's most important forest.

They were accused of responsibility for droughts which gripped Kenya the last two decades and left millions of people thirsty for water and hungry for retribution.

The United Nations Environment Programme calculated that between 1991 and 2011, the settlers destroyed almost a quarter of Mau Complex forest cover.

Experts predicted droughts would worsen and pastoralists would in future fight for water and grass.

“When the Mau Forest suffers, so do an estimated six million Kenyans who depend on it for their water,” Unep said.

The eviction was authorised by President Kibaki's cabinet, and Prime minister Raila Odinga was asked to lead efforts to rehabilitate the forest.

It was a highly politicised activity, which cost Raila the Kipsigis vote in the 2013 election.

However, it was largely successful and Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai helped plant more than 20,000 trees at Kaptunga, Molo, in the Mau Forest complex in January 2010.

We returned to Mau Forest to discover villagers have since returned to the sections vacated by illegal settlers.

They have also uprooted the barely grown trees and burned them for charcoal.

“They have violated all the efforts of Prof Maathai,” says Kaplich Kipruto a science teacher at Kaptunga. “It's like a shrine that has been desecrated.”

Mau complex is the largest forest in East Africa, occupying about 400,000 hectares.

It is also the largest water catchment area in Kenya and the source of more than 11 main rivers with Mara River being the biggest.

The rivers feed into five major lakes, including Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile.

Villagers say the devastating droughts are slowly creeping back.

Water scarcity has brought wild animals and farmers into conflict.

Deaths, injuries and compensation claims are also growing in Narok, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service.

The forest is divided into more than 21 blocks named after different specific tributaries.

“We have been reporting cases of people taking part in logging and charcoal burning but our efforts to stop these illegal activities don’t bear any fruit,” says Reuben Ndete, the chairman of Olokurto Community Forest Association in Natuyopaki location in Narok county.

The association oversees the forest's biggest section, called the Maasai Mara block.

Villagers have now formed CFAs across Mau, fearing the debilitating droughts are back.

Ndete says individuals have illegally cleared the forest for farming and some 'own' more than 300 acres of land.

He fears armed evictions might not work again and have chosen a more peaceful path.

He says illegal charcoal burning is so rampant that Olokurto has a charcoal market where hundreds of bags of charcoal and wads cash exchange hands early every morning and at night.

“In a day over 100 donkeys are used to transport sacks of charcoal from the forest and one can imagine how many trees are felled to make the charcoal,” says Ndete.

“So we formed the Olokurto Community Forest Association to try and conserve this Mau forest block. Some people in our village are unwilling but others support our efforts when we tell them of the dangers of destroying a forest.”

Although the villagers received initial support from conservation group Worldwide Fund For Nature-Kenya, the CFA now tries to stand on its own.

WWF-Kenya has also helped other communities around Mau complex form their CFAs.

Leaders of Olpusimoru community, on the northern side of Mau forest in Narok north constituency, claim their forest has been invaded by newcomers in search of pasture.

Villagers say the grazers also log trees at night using axes and pangas.

The community formed the Olposimoru CFA and have engaged 12 scouts to patrol the forest and monitor illegal activities, then alert authorities.

Olposimoru CFA chairman Julius Ole Sapiya says the scouts are not paid.

“We appeal to the government to ensure that Kenya Forest Service officers do their mandated work by taking action against those destorying the forest,” says Wilfred Sanamwala, a youth leader.

Sapiya says the Narok government should work with the scouts because they know the topography well.

“The county has employed quite a number of rangers who have turned to be of no use in matters that concern the conservation of the forest,” he says.

At the Nyangoresi block of Mau forest, illegal activities started almost immediately the government's attention shifted away in 2013.

Thousands of trees were cut down and villagers alloted themselves illegal plots in the forest.

Villagers came together and formed the Nyangoresi Community Forest Association. They have now partnered with WWF to draw a five-year Participatory Forest Management Plan.

CFA chairman John Mutahi says KFS supported them to start a Nyayo Tea Zone buffer, 100 metres from the forest to helps identify any encroachment.

“The plan outlines grazing plan for the community and firewood collection areas and the period of time for these activities,” Mutahi explains.

Nyangoresi has six community scouts and two rangers who patrol the forest and ensure the PFMP is adhered to.

Each community member pays the gazetted Sh100 per month to Kenya Forest Service for the utilisation of the forest resources.

They also agreed to pay their association an additional Sh20 to sort out small administrative and assist forest scouts who make joint patrols with KFS.

This has drastically reduced illegal logging and farming.

Vincent Mainga, the forest lead of WWF, says communities CFAs need to be recognised first by KFS, before they can develop the PFMP.

“The document is a bit expensive to acquire for it costs as much as Sh1 million because you also need to mobilise and create awareness in the community and do research on matters affecting the forest,” he says.

"As long as the community members realise it’s their role to conserve the forest it would be easier to get even sponsors who will contribute to sponsor the PFMP."

He says the WWF helped the community at Olposimoru block form the Olposimoru CFA.

“They now need to prepare a management plan and then sign a management agreement that will stipulate the rights or the resources they need to acquire from the forest,” he says.

Ndete says such a management plan could help villagers stop destroying the Olokurto block.

“People have been chased out of the forest but they still go back, so it has been a tug of war between the community and the government,” he says.

“That's how a section of trees that were planted by former Prime Minister and the late Wangari Maathai have all been cut.”

He says the plan will help villagers understand that they, not just KFS, also have a responsibility to say no to forest destruction.

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