, KERICHO, Kenya, Sept 23 – Farmers and charcoal makers settled in what remains of Kenya’s Mau forest fear that the government, alarmed by deforestation and the drying up of rivers feeding the country’s tourist attractions, may yet make good on its threat to evict them.
Raila Odinga, prime minister in the coalition government, has launched a vast campaign to empty the forest of its settlers and restore the tree cover — a move that risks alienating even his supporters in the region.
In large swathes of the 400,000-hectare (988,000 acres) Mau, the only reminder that this was once a dense forest is the odd tree still standing amidst maize and potato fields. The forest has shrunk by one-quarter in the past 20 years.
Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have settled in the forest at one point or another, some of them legally others illegally.
The Mau has always been an intensely political issue. Each time a new administration comes in, it declares it cares about the environment and starts evicting settlers from the forest.
When the next elections come round, the same administration, worried about votes, decides the settlers have valid papers and should be allowed to stay where they are, regardless of environmental damage.
Settlers complain they need a means of livelihood. But environmentalists, such as Christian Lambrechts, a UN environment agency specialist seconded to the prime minister’s office, say urgent action must be taken.
"It’s the catchment area for 12 major rivers," Lambrechts told AFP, "four that feed into Lake Nakuru, five that cross the Lake Victoria basin and flow into the lake, one that feeds into Lake Turkana, another into Lake Baringo and yet another .. into Lake Natron in northern Tanzania."
The role of the Mau has become even more vital now that much of Kenya — a largely arid or semi-arid country at the best of times — is in the grip of a bruising drought.
That drought and the dwindling forest have contributed to a dramatic fall in the level of Lake Nakuru, which has one of the world’s biggest concentrations of flamingoes, and the gradual drying up of the rivers that once fed the lake.
Parts of the forest were settled by army veterans who returned from peacekeeping missions in countries such as Sierra Leone and Eritrea then invested their savings into plots of land in the Mau.
Farmers from those districts — named after the countries in which the settlers served — were already forcibly evicted by the military in 2005.
"I just woke one morning. My kids were screaming. They were preparing to go to school. They saw soldiers all around this place. They told me to go get just a few belongings in the house and they started burning it," said Eric Langat Bett, who quit the air force in 1989 to farm in a part of the forest dubbed Sierra Leone.
A few weeks later Bett returned and started building again, as did his neighbor Richard Teret whose house had also been burned down.
Teret bought his first piece of land in the Mau in 1992, nine years before serving in Sierra Leone.
In 2007, a few months before elections, President Mwai Kibaki recognised the men’s title deeds as genuine.
"That’s why I don’t think the current expulsion plan can work," Bett said. And if he does get evicted he could be eligible for compensation, as a deed holder.
The same does not hold true for all of those installed in the Mau. A few kilometres to the north east of the Sierra Leone sector, near the town of Elburgon, it is apparent the forest settlers are there illegally.
Women carrying bundles of firewood scuttle off into the woods at the first sight of a vehicle and the villagers feign ignorance of the piles of charcoal smoking away on all sides.
Only Komen, 73, admits that "businessmen come from Nakuru to buy charcoal from us".
Komen is unlikely to be able to avoid expulsion. And he will not get compensation as he freely admits he has no title deed for his property.
James Kipruto Langat, a member of Fomawa, a group aiming to save the Mau, told AFP he has a radical but efficient solution: "Fence off the area, everyone gets out, we secure the area and that’s it".
But the Ogiek a 15,000-strong group of hunter-gatherer people, who have lived in the Mau for generations say theirs is a special case.
"Ogiek have been living in Mau for generations … here is a community which has co-existed with the forest over the years," Ogiek leader Daniel Kobei told AFP.
The Ogiek like to say that whilst other groups facing eviction from the forest are asking for compensation, "we don’t want compensation."
"You cannot compensate the bones of our ancestors that are in the Mau," Kobei said.
But an earlier 1992 plan to allow the Ogiek to stay in the Mau turned into a fiasco when government officials invented phantom Ogiek families in order to allocate themselves and their cronies pieces of land.
"Leaving the Ogiek in the forest would definitely be an excuse for other people to enter," argued Odenda Lumumba a Mau expert who is part of the civil society group Kenya Land Alliance.
"The Ogiek should be the last gatekeepers of Mau, they should be brought to the boundaries of Mau," he said.