MAU FOREST, Kenya (Reuters) - Ogiek elder Kipkurui Paul Terer faces imminent eviction from the forest area where his people have hunted and gathered for centuries.
Under pressure from international and local environmentalists to save Kenya’s most important water catchment area, the government has resolved to move 2,500 families such as Terer’s who live on the outskirts of the Mau forest.
They have been given three months to leave the region around the forest that is the origin of 12 major rivers, feeding places like the Maasai Mara wildlife reserve and various lakes including Lake Victoria where the Nile starts.
Yet Terer, from the traditionally forest-dwelling Ogiek ethnic group, and others are not illegal squatters.
The government of then president Daniel arap Moi moved them there in the 1980s, away from the heart of the forest, and they received title deeds in 1994.
“We hear on the radio, read in the newspapers and watch the politicians on the television, they are saying that we should not be here and that the government is going to force us out,” Terer told Reuters on his five acre, hillside farm.
Debate over how to save the Mau forest has reached fever pitch in Kenya, revealing a complex history of corrupt or nepotistic land deals, and total disregard for the environment.
Like the shrinking snow-cap of Mount Kilimanjaro and the falling water-levels of the Great Rift Valley Lakes, the destruction of the Mau forest has become a symbol of environmental degradation around east Africa.
Kenya’s biggest forest has lost a quarter of its 400,000 hectares in recent years to unchecked settlement, illegal logging, and burning of charcoal.
A report released by Prime Minister Raila Odinga last week showed that politicians were allocated large parcels of land by corrupt officials during Moi’s 24-year rule until 2001.
“Forests, like other natural resources, should not be dished out as political gifts to friends. And allies of those who benefit from such corruption should not be compensated because this sends the wrong signal,” said Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, who has campaigned vociferously over the Mau.
The report showed that land, always an emotive topic in Kenya both before and after independence from Britain in 1963, was given over the years as gifts to government loyalists and to buy votes in the Rift Valley region.
The impact of its destruction can already be seen in drying rivers and water shortages in cities. It also threatens to hurt hydro-electric development, agriculture and tourism.
“If serious and urgent measures to save the forest are not embarked on now, the ecosystem will be completely destroyed within the next 15 to 20 years,” said U.N. environment programme executive director Achim Steiner last week.
“How the Mau is handled is one of the key issues that Kenyans will judge the current government on,” he said.
Many of the Mau hills have been stripped bare, once lush forest now turned into small parcels of land where small-scale farmers eke out a living. Huge black areas show where illegal burning of trees for charcoal has been going on.
Cabinet has resolved to spend 37 billion shillings ($480 million) to compensate and move some people out of the area.
“I can never leave this place, where can I go? I have nowhere to go. I would rather die here,” Terer told a visiting reporter, to cheers from men holding machetes and clubs.
But with many politicians mixed up in Mau land issues, the subject is fomenting divisions within Kenya’s coalition.
Odinga incurred the wrath of legislators from the vast Rift Valley region when he said the Mau must be saved at all costs. They accuse him of betraying them and have urged their people not to move unless they are compensated.
The legislators also fear that some families to be moved will not be compensated because they do not have legal title deeds. A few bought land that was illegally allocated by corrupt public officials and their title deeds are not considered legal.
Many Kenyans fear forced movements will cause clashes.
“We have lived with our neighbours peacefully but if the government insists that we must go, we will fight. If need be, we will all die here,” said Mau resident Benjamin Langat.
Editing by Dominic Evans