KENYA: What is behind the Mau controversy?

Over the past two decades, the Mau complex has lost at least 107,000ha of forest cover due to irregular and unplanned settlements, logging and charcoal burning, as well as increased agriculture. Photo: Jane Some/IRIN
Over the past two decades, the Mau complex has lost at least 107,000ha of forest cover due to irregular and unplanned settlements, logging and charcoal burning, as well as increased agriculture. Photo: Jane Some/IRIN

NAIROBI, 29 September 2009 (IRIN) – The continued degradation of the Mau complex – Kenya’s largest water catchment area – threatening everything from the spectacular annual migration of the wildebeest to pastoralism, agriculture and hydro-power generation, has dominated public debate for the better part of 2009. The government’s plan to evict the illegal settlers has added to the controversy.

The threat posed by the continued depletion of the Mau complex ties in with the increasing concerns, on a global level, over loss of bio-diversity, increased carbon dioxide emissions as a result of forest cover loss, and poor soil and water resources.

However, while climate change could be a major contributor to the current crisis in the Mau complex, the destruction of the forests has reduced the ability of the Mau eco-system to absorb or reduce the impact of climate change, increasing the vulnerability of the people to changing weather patterns.

We look at some of the issues surrounding the country’s largest closed-canopy forest eco-system:

Where is the Mau Complex?

 The Mau Complex is in the Rift Valley Province
The Mau Complex is in the Rift Valley Province

Mainly in the Rift Valley Province, the Mau is one of the country’s five major water towers; it forms the upper catchment of the main rivers west of the province. The rivers are: Njoro and Makalia (these drain into Lake Nakuru), Sondu, Yala, Nzoia and Nyando (draining into Lake Victoria) and the Ewaso Nyiro, Kerio and Mara rivers.

The complex supplies water to many lakes in the Rift Valley, from Lake Turkana in the northwest to Lake Natron in neighbouring Tanzania – the only regular breeding site for millions of flamingos.

Historically, it is home to a minority group of indigenous forest dwellers, the Ogiek.

What is the size of the Mau complex?
It covers at least 400,000ha – as large as the forests of the Aberdares and Mt Kenya combined.

Over the past two decades, the complex has lost at least 107,000ha of forest cover due to irregular and unplanned settlements, logging and charcoal burning, as well as increased agriculture.

What is at stake if degradation of the complex continues?
The importance of the complex lies in the eco-system service it provides to the country and East Africa as a whole, including river flow regulation, flood mitigation, water storage, reduced soil erosion, bio-diversity, carbon sequestration, carbon reservoir and micro-climate regulation.

The area contributes to the water supply to urban areas and supports the livelihood of millions of people in rural areas but the widespread irregular and poorly planned settlement and illegal forest resource extraction have affected the ecosystem, from water supply for commercial and domestic use to hydro-electric power generation, tourism and agriculture.

Moreover, experts have warned that continued destruction of the complex will lead to a water crisis that could extend beyond the country’s borders.

According to a September 2009 report by the government’s Interim Coordinating Secretariat for the Mau Forest Complex on the rehabilitation of the Mau Forest Ecosystem, if encroachment and unsustainable exploitation of the eco-system continue, damage could be irreversible, with serious ecological consequences and ramifications for internal security.

When did degradation of the complex begin?

Originally divided into 22 blocks, the real devastation of the complex began in 1997 when the government allocated large plots of land to individuals in what was seen as a political bid to win votes during the general elections that year. The present government has said all land allocations in the late 1990s are illegal and wants to evict the occupants.

What is controversial about the Mau?
The government and conservationists agree that quick action needs to be taken to stop the continued destruction of the complex but Rift Valley politicians are divided over the eviction of those deemed to be illegally settled in the complex. Sections of government want the Mau settlers evicted without compensation while most MPs from the province insist they must be fully compensated.

Already, cases of intimidation have been reported in areas surrounding the forest while conflict over water points, pasture and land has been on the rise in recent months.

How many people would be affected by the government’s planned evictions?

An estimated 50,000 people are expected to be moved out of the forest once the government begins to execute its plan to save the area. Humanitarian agencies estimate up to 500,000 people could be displaced should violence follow.

Already, there are reports of communities living in the Mau arming themselves.

What is being done to save the complex?

A camp for the displaced: Humanitarian agencies estimate up to 500,000 people could be displaced should violence follow the eviction of people who have settled in the Mau complex. Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
A camp for the displaced: Humanitarian agencies estimate up to 500,000 people could be displaced should violence follow the eviction of people who have settled in the Mau complex. Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

On 9 September 2009, the UN Environment Programme and Kenyan government launched a US$400 million appeal to save the complex, aimed at raising funds for its rehabilitation.

“The Mau complex is of critical importance for sustaining current and future ecological, social and economic development in Kenya. The rehabilitation of the eco-system will require substantial resources and political goodwill. UNEP is privileged to work in partnership with the Government of Kenya towards the implementation of this vital project,” Achim Steiner, the UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director, said during the launch.

What will it take to reverse the destruction of the complex?
The restoration of the Mau is a strategic priority that requires substantial resources and political will.

On 4 September, Prime Minister Raila Odinga launched an interim secretariat to co-ordinate the implementation of a multi-stakeholder taskforce’s recommendations on the rehabilitation of the complex.

The recommendations include fencing off the area, as well as relocating individuals living in the forest.

A 10-point intervention plan was identified by the 11-member secretariat to implement the recommendations of the Mau Forest Task Force for immediate and medium-term action.

Sources:
The Ministry of Lands
The Prime Minister’s Office
The African Conservation Fund
UNEP