Watch out! Disaster looming for Kenya

Politicians cared little about the burning of East Africa's largest forest – until the lights in Nairobi started going out. Daniel Howden reports
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The Independent Online

Under a slate-grey sky Francis Maina is hunched over a tree stump. He secures a rusted chain around it and signals for the tractor to start hauling. The blackened base of the mature hardwood is wrenched from the earth like a tooth from a jaw. As he works, the nearby standing forest soaks up a gentle afternoon rain, pulling it into the soil. In Maina's razed field the water runs down the cratered hillside in channels of black mud.

The 60-year-old farm labourer stands in the midst of an ecological rape scene: scorched earth scattered with the burnt stumps of centuries-old trees. He is one of thousands of Kenyans who have settled inside this supposedly protected forest that stretches from the Mau escarpment down to the Maasai plains and up to the central highlands.

The largest forest in East Africa acts as a water tower for an otherwise arid land, feeding its lakes and rivers, regulating the climate and refreshing its underground acquifers. But an epic drought has plunged Kenya into an ecological crisis and its dried up rivers can no longer turn the blades of the hydro-electric turbines. Power rationing is switching off the lights in the capital Nairobi for days at a time.

Which means the fate of the forest has finally caught the attention of Kenya's warring politicians who have vowed to evict the "squatters" from the Mau. While they argue over land claims and compensation demands, Maina and hundreds like him are finishing the job of killing the forest. "The politicians have their own land," Maina says with a scowl. "Now they want to move the poor people so they can take our land."

Turqa Jirmo, a senior warden with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), is heading a task force set up last year to save the forest. He still hasn't recovered from his first task which was to fly over the land for four days to assess the damage. "I was amazed. I never believed the destruction had gone so far. I couldn't see the forest because of the charcoal smoke coming from the ground."

Charts on his office wall map out the complexity of 12 forest blocks that make up the Mau's 400,000 hectares. Mr Jirmo estimates as much as 40 per cent of it has already been destroyed. The challenge of saving what's left is complicated by illegal loggers or "wood poachers" as he calls them; a flourishing illegal charcoal trade, and the deeply politicised issue of the settlers. The green lines of the protected areas on his maps are marked with red zones where past governments have doled out woodlands to their supporters in a blatant example of land for votes.

While the politicians haggle over compensation in their Nairobi offices lit by petrol generators, speculators are using the hiatus to slash and burn as much profit as they can ahead of possible evictions.

In February, the Mau complex was engulfed in flames, with an inferno that destroyed thousands of hectares and burned for four days. "People deliberately set the fire," Mr Jirmo remembers. "There are confusing signals from the politicians and people are trying to harvest as much of the forest before the government can evict them." The head of the Mau task force sees any failure in his mission in the starkest terms. "The forest is a lifeline for Kenya. Without it Kenya has no future."

The disaster is already present in Lake Nakuru, renowned for its spectacular flamingoes. The two rivers that feed the lake have dried up and the KWS is having to pump water from deep underground to keep the animals alive. Kenya's vital tourist industry would buckle, he warns, as already the spectacle of the Great Wildebeest Migration has been ruined by the historically low levels of the Mara river. World-famous parks, like Kenya's Masai Mara and Tanzania's Serengeti would also be at risk.

Conflict between humans and wildlife will rise, as "rivers no longer flow to pastoral areas." And urban centres will not escape. Sondu Miriu, one of the country's major hydro-electric stations that lies downstream from the Mau, is already running at one-tenth of capacity. And competition for water could even re-ignite the ethnic clashes that last year killed as many as 1,500 people and displaced tens of thousands more. "This is going to be a security problem," Mr Jirmo warns.

Kenya's Nobel prize-winning environmentalist Wangari Maathai is orchestrating the "Enough is Enough" campaign to halt the destruction and identify the culprits. Underneath the environmental catastrophe, she asserts, is a political scandal as venal as Kenya's notorious public financial frauds.

The small Ogiek tribe of traditional forest dwellers have found themselves at the unwitting centre of the sting. "The Ogiek were used as a way to get access to the land," explains Christian Lambrecht from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) which is based in Nairobi.

When the Ogiek's population was assessed by a UK-funded team in 1993, it was put at 3,000 people. By 1996 that figure had grown to 9,000.

And when the government announced a settlement scheme in 2001, it had jumped to 14,000. "The settlement scheme was aimed at securing political support. Extensive lands were given to private individuals many of whom were in power at the time," says Mr Lambrecht.

One of the most heavily populated illegal Mau settlements is Sierra Leone, given its name after being handed out to army officers returning from peacekeeping operations in West Africa. Entire stretches of the Mau are carved into lucrative wheat farms openly owned by ministers who served the former president Daniel Arap Moi. And when current Prime Minister Raila Odinga set out to name and shame land-grabbers in the Mau he found half of his own political allies among them. The poor that have cleared, rented or bought plots here now offer cover to the bigger interests who stand to benefit from any government compensation.

Godana Guyo is a KWS ranger with 18 years of experience and admits that he is pessimistic about the chances of saving the forest. He stands by while Francis Maina and a young labourer who gives his name as "just John" pile earth over the smoking remains of split trees.

The ash and soil have been fashioned into an earthen charcoal kiln. Precious hardwoods (including the endangered Podo tree), worth hundreds of pounds as timber, being carbonised are sold for 200 Kenyan shillings (£1.80) per sack. It is typical of the exploitation in the Mau that it makes no economic sense. Exhaustive studies from UNEP have shown that the country's hydro-electric power, its tourism sector and its vast tea estates, which rely on rainfall from the Mau, are under threat for the short term benefit of a few individuals.

Or in the words of the beleaguered ranger, Guyo, standing in the rain watching charcoal bags loaded onto a trailer and unable to arrest anyone: "It's big damage for small money."

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