Logging of Mau Forest. Photo by Mediamax, June 17, 2018.

After my optimistic article on Africa’s Great Green Wall (see here), I feel I need to report on reforestation in Kenya which is not so positive.

Wangari Maathai (1940 to 2011) in 2001.

Let’s start with the inspiring part. In 1977 Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement. Its objectives were tree planting, conservation, and women’s rights. This was well before these issues were commonplace. While today this all seems innocuous enough, this was not true in Kenya. While the Green Belt Movement has planted 51 million trees over the years, it was not easy. Maathai was jailed a number of time, beaten during protests, went into hiding when it was rumored that she would be assassinated, but used her influence to promote women’s rights, stop a 60 story building in Uhuru Park in downtown Nairobi, keeping Karura Forest in Nairobi from being hived off to developers, and other such activities. In 2004 she was the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She died in 2011 of ovarian cancer.

Currently Kenya has ambitious reforestation objectives. The amount of forest in the country was only 3% of the territory and the plan is to increase this to 10%. I assume that the 80% of Kenya that is arid/semi-arid land is not suitable for reforestation, although the work in Niger indicates that even here there are possibilities. Kenya is already a water-stressed country. There are five major “water towers” in Kenya that supply the country with water. These include high areas such as Mt. Kenya and Mt. Elgon. Here I want to focus on the most continuous of these water towers, the Mau Forest.

Map of Mau Forest complex (in green) and the rivers that flow from the forest. Kakamega Forest is just to the east (right) of Kakamega town shown on the map.

The Mau Forest complex consists of 675,000 acres (273,300 hectares) of rolling hills on the western side of the Rift Valley that cuts through the middle of Kenya. The highest point is 10,164 feet (3098 meters). The forest has some of the highest rainfall rates in Kenya, supplying the water for many of the rivers and lakes in the Rift Valley and western Kenya. As the forests are being cut down for lumber and for farming, the amount of water in the rivers is declining and some of the lakes may potentially shrink or dry up. During the dry season, people down stream, depending on these rivers for their water supply, are losing their access to water.

A picture of illegal farms cut from Mau Forest. Photo by KASS-FM.

During the 1980s and 1990s, about 25 percent of the forest was illegally hived off with fake title deeds. Some of these were then divided and sold off to the unsuspecting settlers. In addition some people just moved into the forest and began clearing the forest for agriculture. There are now 60,000 families (perhaps 300,000 people) living in the forest and the government, worried by the drying up of the rivers and the concerns of those dependent on those rivers downstream, has ordered those families to leave the forest or face eviction. One eviction was done in September last year and a second eviction will begin next month. Some politicians support the evictions and others oppose it so it has become a hot political issue. Since the settlers are considered illegal there is no compensation for them. Human rights groups are worried about the human consequences of these evictions.

Ogiek members submitting their rights to the taskforce on implementation of African Court’s decision on Ogiek’s rights on February 6, 2019. Photo by Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program(OPDP).

There is another issue, namely, the Ogiek people. These are the original hunter-gather people who lived in the Mau Forest. They lived in the forest by collecting wild plants, raising honey, and hunting animals. Now they raise some crops and, since they have stopped hunting, raise some goats and sheep. They claim that they preserve the forest. They are small in number. Yet they are being evicted along with the other settlers who have recently invaded the forest. The Ogiek and their human rights supporters oppose their removal, but so far to no effect. You can access their webpage here.

When settlers are removed from the forest, indigenous trees are planted on their former land. Unfortunately this is not the first time that settlers have been evicted from the Mau Forest because in the past there was a lack of political will. Now the government is firm in its stance, but this can always change. Therefore the Mau Forest is still in danger.

A picture of Kakamega Forest. Photo from TripAdvisor.com.

I have to end on a more positive note. Kakamega Forest is the last tropical rain forest in Kenya. It is 17.3 square miles (44.7 square kilometers) in size. Compared to the Mau Forest it is very small as the Mau Forest is sixty times as big. It is mostly in Kakamega County where I live. It is one of the major attractions as you can see birds, butterflies, monkeys, and lots of trees. I have visited the forest and it is wonderful. While people have not encroached on the forest land as they have in the Mau Forest, lumberjacks invade the forest at night and cut down the big trees. I remember one news article where the night lumberjack was killed when the tree fell on him.

Picture of the electric fence around Mt. Kenya National Park. Photo from Rhino Ark.

Rhino Ark was established in Kenya to save the black rhino from extinction. Two of the major problems with forests are that people invade the forest and animals that live in the forest leave the forest and destroy people’s crops. So Rhino Ark has built a 250 mile/400 kilometer electric fence around the forest/people boundaries of Aberdare National Park. It took Rhino Ark decades and they have erected other fences to separate wildlife and people. They are now planning to build a fence all around Kakamega Forest. Then the exciting part. When they finish, they plan on reintroducing chimpanzees and low-land gorillas to the forest, both of which no longer exist in the wild in Kenya.  

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David Zarembka

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