A signpost showing the U.N. road (Crescent) that passes through the forest. Photo credit: Protus Onyango.
The founder of Kenya’s GreenBelt Movement, Wangari Maathai, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 because she talked environmental truth to power. She also walked the walk. Especially on a January morning in 1999 when she strode into the Karura Forest, Nairobi’s flagship preserve, to plant trees to protest government approved plans to build a private golf course on protected land there.
Hired thugs attacked and brutally beat Maathai and her supporters. Police failed to act. Film of the bloodshed outraged Kenya and the world, and ultimately helped oust the corrupt, authoritarian, pro-business, anti-environmental government of Daniel Moi.
Critics say that the current government of Uhuru Kenyatta is pursuing disturbingly similar antidemocratic and anti-environmental policies, threatening Maathai’s legacy. Under Kenyatta, Karura Forest is again in danger. Real estate moguls are ringing the park with high-end residential projects. Some have illegally acquired titles from the Kenyan government and claimed parcels within the preserve, which they are hurrying to build on.
A monkey in the Karura Forest. Photo credit: Protus Onyango.
Karura Forest was protected in 1932 and originally measured 1,063 hectares (2,627 acres), making it the largest preserve in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. Developer incursions, beginning in 1964 and continuing sporadically to the present, have cut the actual forest’s size almost in half. Only 564 hectares (1,394 acres) remain according to a Kenyan report on illegal land allocations compiled by Lawyer Paul Ndung’u released in 2005.
Ironically, the U.N. Environment Programme global headquarters and other diplomatic complexes in Nairobi’s well-to-do Gigiri neighborhood are built on land carved out of the park. Full-scale land grabbing took place between 1994 and 1999 when 477 hectares (1,179 acres) of public land were allocated to 64 different private developers. An investigation by Kenya’s Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission in 2014 found that all land excised from the original Karura Forest was illegally taken and sold by corrupt dealers with connections to the ruling class.
Professor Maathai passed away in 2011. Were she alive today, she could not legally organize a public tree planting demonstration to publicize Karura’s death by 1,000 cuts. Kenyatta’s government recently passed laws banning public protests, muzzling the media, and is working to pass new legislation that will hamstring international NGOs, potentially shutting down their environmental and social programs in the country.
Construction of the Two Rivers project that is very close to River Ruaka at the edge of Karura Forest. The project includes a bridge over the river. Photo credit: Protus Onyango.
Wangari Maathai, the driver behind the U.N. Environment Programme’s Billion Tree campaign, would also likely be outraged to know that UNEP has remained silent while new threatened incursions into Karura Forest occur next door.
The whittling away of a great park
Karura Forest is not a large preserve by global standards, but a deeply symbolic one. It is directly across the street from UNEP’s new headquarters — built in 2011 as a shining example of green building and sustainability. The park’s remaining forestlands protect five rivers: the Ruaka, Karura, Gitathuru, Thigiri and Mathare. The preserve boasts a large waterfall, archeological sites, and historic caves where Mau-Mau freedom fighters hid during their war of liberation against the British.
Though the forest lies just two kilometers north of Nairobi’s busy city center, it boasts extraordinary biodiversity, including 200 bird species, such as the Ayres hawk-eagle (Hieraaetus ayresii) and African crowned eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus), African wood owl (Strix woodfordii) and grey crested cranes (Balearica regulorum). The African queen (Buddleai davidii) and Desmond’s Green Banded Swallowtail (Papilio desmondi) butterflies are both found here. The park’s mammals include Grimm’s duikers (Sylvicapra grimmia), colobus monkeys (Colobus guereza kikuyuensis), and the epauletted-bat (Epomophorus minimus).
Diminishing waters of Lily Lake in Karura. Photo credit: Protus Onyango.
Indigenous trees found there are the African Newtonia (Newtonia buchananii), toothbrush tree (Salvadora persica) and medicinal plants like red bitterberry (Strychnos henningsii). The riparian belts along the Karura, Gitathuru and Ruaka rivers support groves of native bamboo and small wetlands — key bird and wildlife habitat.
Karura Forest is one of the last remaining local indigenous forests to provide a vital carbon sink for Nairobi’s industrial activity. It also serves as an important water catchment area and has great relaxation and recreational value for Nairobi city dwellers. It saw nearly 200,000 visitors in 2014.
“A rapidly growing and polluted city does need ‘lungs’ to provide clean air, a filtration system for clean water, and a biological system for the insects that pollinate and support our peri-urban farms and green spaces,” said Akshay Vishwanath, a Friends of Nairobi National Park board member who works with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “Without these parks and forests, our only options for social activities would be restaurants, bars and places of worship.”
Vishwanath faults the Kenyatta government for wrecking portions of Karura Forest to build the Northern By-Pass road, and for issuing illegal titles to private developers. He argues that public lands are owned by all of Kenya’s citizens, and that such backroom deals violate Kenya’s Constitution and land use laws. “Government agencies do not have the legal mandate to trade and exchange land as if it belongs to them,” said Vishwanath.
A signpost showing a fencing project meant to save the forest from land grabbers. Photo credit: Protus Onyango.
He sees the loss of Karura Forest as a heartbreaking loss to Nairobi: “A healthy Karura is not just about conservation. It is about a city that is worth working, living and playing in. About how we as a people understand and abide by the rule of law, about how we develop and about how we prosper. It is about our hopes, desires and vision for the city.”
Kenyan regulatory agencies fail to regulate
Environmental organizations and the public have condemned the government for its illegal land deals, and federal agencies for their failure to enforce conservation laws.
Kenya’s National Land Commission (NLC) is required by law and the Kenyan Constitution to manage public lands responsibly and sustainably, and to initiate investigations and recommend appropriate redress for public land use violations throughout the nation.
The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) is supposed to protect the environment by awarding or rejecting a wide range of licenses and permits, and overseeing Environmental Impact Assessments and waste management.
“There are laws and rules that govern forests in Kenya. Unfortunately, the agencies — like NEMA and NLC — that should enforce them are sleeping on the job,” says Prof Njoroge Karanja, chairman of the Friends of Karura Forest. “We shouldn’t be having people still holding onto illegal titles of land parcels inside the forest when NLC has powers to revoke them.”
A signpost to show replanting efforts. Photo credit: Protus Onyango.
Karanja says that the government has failed today’s Kenyans and future generations. “If laws were obeyed, we wouldn’t be in court using public money to defend public assets in cases filed by land grabbers.”
Kenya’s National Assembly is currently debating Section 68 (1) of the Forest Conservation Management Bill, 2014 stipulating that no person shall, in a public forest fell, cut, take, burn, injure or remove any forest produce; erect any building… clear, cultivate or break up land for cultivation or for any other purpose. Ironically, this legislative effort is underway simultaneously with the destruction of Karura Forest.
An explosion of new development
Legal experts agree that the Karura land grab, and others occurring in preserves around Kenya, violate numerous laws, including the country’s constitution, the National Land Policy Act of 2009, National Land Commission Act of 2012, Land Act of 2012, and Land Registration Act of 2012.
However, critics argue that these laws are not the problem, but rather the guardians of the laws who fail to enforce them. If the government was on the job, the World Agroforestry Centre couldn’t have built their headquarters on 7.8 hectares (19.3 acres) of Karura Forest in 1989. Nor could the more recently constructed Village Market exist. It is presently the biggest shopping and recreation center in Kenya with 150 stores and the famous Tribe Hotel. It was built on an illegally obtained Karura Forest wetland.
A Karura Forest tree. Photo credit: Protus Onyango.
The forest is now threatened by the construction of the Rossylin Mall, being built atop a Karura river, and the Two Rivers Development, being built beside the Ruaka River at the forest’s edge. Two Rivers, expected to open by the end of 2015, will be the largest shopping mall in Kenya and its complex will include residential homes, a five-star hotel, and office blocks. It is being built on a 40-hectare (100-acre) parcel carved from the forest. The project is owned by Centum, a company associated with immediate former Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki. The forest is also threatened by expansion of Runda, Muthaiga, New Muthaiga, Whispers Gigiri, Ridgeways and Village Market estates. Kenya’s regulators have done nothing so far to derail these developments.
Raymond Chisholm, a U.S. investor whose permit to construct a hotel in Karura Forest was revoked in 2003 by the Kibaki government, along with Bernard Haissly of the Geneva based York Holdings Ltd., recently went to court in Kenya to be allowed to develop land illegally excised from the forest. York Holdings is laying claim to 7.4 hectares (18.3 acres) of the forest. Chisholm’s piece is directly adjacent to UNEP. The $1.3 million hotel they want to build would serve UNEP and other Gigiri diplomatic compounds.
In his petition filed with the High Court in Nairobi, YWH director Bernard Haissly, claims that the company received the certificate of title to the Karura Forest land on December 30, 2002. However, that day was a public holiday when civil servants weren’t working.
Construction of a house on the Gitathuru River in Karura forest. The owner built a foundation touching the river. Photo credit: Protus Onyango.
The YWH scheme was first identified in lawyer Paul Ndung’u’s Land Report on Illegal and Irregular Allocation of Public Land in 2005. That report stated that the land sale was illegal, and recommended that the certificate of title be revoked. Those opposed to Karura’s development have filed a counter suit against York Holdings.
Who is to blame?
Prof. Karanja blames the government for valuing development and immediate profit over forests. “The wealth of this nation is in forests because of the flora and fauna found in them. This can’t be quantified in monetary terms,” he said.
“We hope the developers see sense and appreciate [their] obligation to the public interest and stop developments in the forest and surrender the illegal titles,” says Wanjira Mathai, board chair of the GreenBelt Movement. He asserts that the environment constitutes the vital foundation for Kenya’s economic, social, cultural and spiritual advancement.
Privilege and power continue to plague the park. Many of Nairobi’s rich live in estates built in the forest or on its edges, with sewage systems directed into its rivers. Those affluent neighborhoods include Runda, Rossylin, Spring Valley, and Muthaiga — home to Kenya’s former President Mwai Kibaki and Nairobi Governor Dr. Evans Kidero.
Prof. James Ole Kiyiapi, a former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, says Karura’s problems are not only caused by non-enforcement of laws and poor urban planning, but by Kenyans’ pervasive apathy toward conservation. “Kenyans have a ‘don’t care’ attitude when it comes to environmental conservation,” he said. “Threats to Karura are symptomatic of a larger problem. If we can’t save Karura then we can’t save [Kenya’s] other forests and this spells doom for our country.”
Who will care for, and cry for, Karura?
On March 21, 2015, current UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, used the International Day of Forests, to send the world a message : “This is an occasion to focus not only on forests, but on the things that are being done by people, communities, governments and business across the world,” he said. “This is an occasion to consider how to address what remains an extraordinarily persistent challenge: the degradation and decimation of our forests at the rate of 30 million hectares per year.… I hope that the International Day of Forests will serve not only as the reminder of the problems and challenges we face but also our responsibilities and above all the opportunities forests provide for our common future.”
A signpost showing the entry to Karura Forest. Photo credit: Protus Onyango.
On another recent occasion, Steiner spoke out against environmental crime totaling $213 billion annually. He lauded the Kenyan government’s crackdown on wildlife poaching and the ivory trade. But he remained mum when I asked him about the illegal destruction of Karura Forest, occurring right next door, almost literally under the eyes of UNEP. The question, circulated through Waiganjo Njoroge, UNEP’s Division of Communications and Public Information Officer, has received no response.
Klaus Töpfer, UNEP’s Executive Director in 1999, did not stay silent. He called the Karura Forest, “a precious natural resource that [Nairobi] cannot afford to lose,” and warned that UNEP might move its headquarters out of Kenya if the park was destroyed.
With Wangari Maathai gone from the world, the future of Karura Forest is now uncertain. If UNEP, international NGOs, the Kenyan government and the people do not take concerted action, Nairobi’s finest urban forest, which Maathai shed her blood to save, could disappear from the Earth.