Kenyan students confront Moi in battle of the forest

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The Independent Online
AS FORESTS go, Karura is not much to write home about. A somewhat scrubby collection of trees on the outskirts of this city, it has neither the grandeur and mystery of Amazonia or The Congo, nor the historical resonance of Sherwood or Fontainebleau. It is neither the last stronghold of an endangered species nor a priceless gem in the landscape. But it seems set to become a landmark, nevertheless.

Last week it was at the heart of one of the bloodiest environmental protests, which, it was claimed, marked the dawning of a new green consciousness in Africa, a continent where governments have traditionally resisted pressure for conservation on the grounds that they must give top priority to economic development.

The struggle over the forest has also drawn together a formidable coalition against the government of President Daniel arap Moi at home, and sparked widespread condemnation overseas. It has also brought the plight of the world's fast disappearing forests to the doorstep of the United Nations body charged with protecting them. For its borders stretch to within 500 yards of the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) and last week ministers from around the world were right on the spot for a meeting of its governing body.

The 2,400 acres of woodland are the last remnant of a virgin forest that once covered much of Kenya. Over the years, it has been increasingly felled for housing and other development - including, ironically, Unep's headquarters. What remained was supposed to be protected as public land, but the government is now allowing it to be developed for a luxurious housing estate.

Kenya's leading environmentalist, Wangari Maathai - who was the country's first African woman professor - has long been protesting against the plan, and last month was beaten up when she tried to plant saplings in the forest. Last weekend, she protested at the forest again and was backed by Nairobi university students who took to the streets for three days of pitched battles with riot police. Many were injured on both sides, as both the students and the police went on the rampage.

The students barricaded one of the city's main highways, paralysing traffic, attacked police with shouts of "va hii ghasia" (kill the garbage), stoned cars and set vehicles on fire. The police behaved with their by now customary brutality. One student who pleaded with colleagues not to stone vehicles, was tied to a tree and beaten up. He was still tied up when the riot police came by. They beat him into unconsciousness, in their turn.

Public opinion, on balance, sided with the students, despite their excesses. The authorities made things worse by arresting three MPs and charging them with inciting violence, which carries a three-year prison sentence. Professor Maathai barricaded herself in her home to avoid being arrested as well.

An extraordinary weight of criticism has since descended on the government. The Anglican Archbishop of Kenya, David Gitari, blamed the police for starting the violence and has called on church leaders to join in holding a special service and tree-planting ceremony in the forest. "We shall go there in our robes even if it means being beaten up," he said.

The Roman Catholic church indicated that it would join him and the Law Society of Kenya called on the government to abandon its plan to build in the forest. Fourteen foreign ambassadors, while condemning the violence on both sides, have described the housing plan as an "abuse of public assets" and the environment ministers of Germany, Norway and Namibia called on their Kenyan counterparts to make their views felt.

After 36 hours holed up in her house, Prof Maathai emerged to join a panel on forests at the UN meeting. (I was one of the other panellists). She told a packed hall: "The fuss we have been causing is a symbol of our concern for the destruction of forests in this country and further afield." She said that she was sorry that there had been violence but added that it was good that the authorities had seen "what the people can do when they are frustrated with the government for not managing the country's resources for their benefit". She hailed it as the beginning of a "new environmental awareness in Africa" and said that "the African people are responding to save the environment".

Traditionally, African governments have resisted pressure to conserve forests and cut pollution on the grounds that their economic development was more important. But opinion polls have shown their people to be much greener: they rely on trees, for example, to protect water resources and to conserve the soil on which their livelihoods depend.

But it is debatable how much the recent riots in Kenya were really about the environment. There is intense speculation that moves to convert the forest into a housing estate have been driven by the desire to buy political favours and this is what gave the protests much of their passion; they were one-third about the environment and two-thirds about corruption, one senior diplomat said. "The politicians grab the forest and the students grabbed the opportunity to protest against the government," he said.