- The Kenyan government has accused some civil society groups of militancy, terrorism, being espionage fronts for foreign powers, money laundering, tax evasion, or failing to account for donor funding.
- Human rights groups say the accusations are meant to justify deregistering targeted groups, effectively closing them down by paralyzing their operations.
- Attempts to quash civil society are no anomaly among unscrupulous Kenyan politicians, but the extent to which these attempts are harming the country’s fragile ecosystems is new.
At age 70 Ngai Mutuoboro may not possess the vibrancy of his youthful days, but he can still pack a punch when it comes to environmental conservation.
The elder from Tharaka Nithi County in the center of Kenya has been arrested and harassed, and earlier this spring tragically lost a member of his community group — all for agitating against the illegal exploitation of Mt. Kenya forest by powerful politicians.
At his shanty home in Kibubua village, which flanks the forest to the east, Mutuoboro keeps a collection of documents that show the kind of human-rights abuses environmental groups like his face when they lobby against Kenyan politicians involved in illegal logging.
“This is where we were camped last Christmas to protest against illegal tree harvesting at the Kiamuriuki part of Mt. Kenya forest,” he told Mongabay, showing a local newspaper clip that captured the event. “I was arrested along with 19 of my colleagues by security officers.”
Mutuoboro belongs to the Atiriri Bururi ma Chuka community group (“Keepers of Chuka Community Land” in English), which has been working for the conservation of the forest for decades.
Mutuoboro said community members depend on the forest for resources, such as firewood, which they collect from the forest floor. Its greatest significance, he said, is its ability to attract rain and host a variety of wildlife. Mt. Kenya is one of the country’s five so-called water towers —natural landmarks rich in forest cover that capture water and replenish freshwater resources.
His group has been protecting a strip of 24,000 acres of land that borders Mt. Kenya National Park to the southeast. The national park and the forest reserve are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Despite such benefits to the community, Atiriri Bururi ma Chuka alleges that well-financed politicians bribe the local forestry office to continue exploiting the forest — and to curtail Kenyans like Mutuoboro who oppose their activities.
In March, three of his colleagues were patrolling a widely deforested part of the forest when security officers assailed them. One was shot dead, while the other two sustained bullet wounds in the stomach.
“They accused my colleagues of being in the forest illegally, yet the Atiriri Bururi ma Chuka is recognized by the government as a community group that lobbies for the conservation of Mt. Kenya forest,” he said.
Indeed the country’s draft National Forest Policy specifically pledges to “provide incentives to communities…for forest management and conservation.” And the Kenyan government recently launched an ambitious effort to combat widespread deforestation by planting 20 million trees that relies heavily on community groups, including on Mt. Kenya.
Censuring civil society
Even so, Mutuoboro’s situation is typical of the kind of pressure some environmental groups are facing in Kenya, following attempts since 2014 by the East African country’s government to censure the civil society movement.
The government has accused some Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), as they are known in the country, of militancy — like Mutuoboro’s. It has accused more of money laundering, tax evasion, and terrorism. Yet others it has accused of being espionage fronts for foreign powers, or of failing to account for donor funding, which led it to attempt to put a 15 percent cap on all foreign funding CSOs receive.
All these accusations are meant to justify deregistering targeted CSOs, effectively closing them down by paralyzing their operations, according to human rights groups.
“There is a decline in donor funding for civil society activities in Kenya due to the growing hostility against them by the government,” Florence Syevuo told Mongabay. Syevuo is coordinator of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Kenya Forum, a coalition of CSO pushing for the achievement of the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals.
Attempts to quash civil society are no anomaly among unscrupulous Kenyan politicians, but the extent to which these attempts are harming the country’s fragile ecosystems is new.
At the Mt. Kenya forest, the 24,000-acre strip of forest under Atiriri Bururi ma Chuka’s watch is facing serious politically linked timber logging. In some parts of the forest, aerial images in Mutuoboro’s possession show stretches of land the size of a football field that have been stripped of tree cover.
Mutuoboro said his group is continuing to agitate against the logging despite the hostile anti-protest security operations.
The environmental fallout from the government’s censure of CSOs is not limited to Mt. Kenya forest. The government has declared its intention to seize some 17,000 hectares of land in the Mau forest in Kenya’s Rift Valley region. Mau forest is a public resource and is Kenya’s biggest water tower. The government can acquire part of a public resource for certain activities, such as research. In this case, it intends to use the Mau forest land to resettle people displaced by the 2007 post-election violence. But CSOs and the public have opposed this move since resettlement will mean cutting trees for livelihood activities like farming.
Patches of land in sacred forests like the Kaya in Kenya’s coastal region are being illegally allocated to private developers, according to the National Land Commission, a government agency that manages public land at the national and county levels.
CSOs have vehemently opposed the encroachment in both Mau and the sacred forests. But some have withdrawn their protests after being intimidated through tactics like being forced to file their annual financial returns with the government if they want their licenses to be renewed.
“Community forest conservation groups are the most vulnerable to political manipulation because they are not well informed about the law,” Harriet Gichuru of the conservation group Nature Kenya told Mongabay. Nature Kenya established a payment for ecosystem services program in central Kenya to protect community conservation groups, Gichuru said.
Under the program communities team up with institutions like hers to invest in activities that make good returns for the ecosystem. They can also be paid to do something new that supports the ecosystem or to stop activities that harm it.
But even with such protection, CSOs have not been spared the political offensive. Lately, hostile groups like Al-Shabaab have discovered their weakened state and are exploiting it to their fill.
In parts of eastern and northern Kenya, where insecurity has left communities vulnerable to militia activity, rangeland vegetation is being stripped for charcoal production. In the Mui Basin toward the southern part of the country alone, at least 12,000 bags of charcoal with a 90-kilogram (198-pound) capacity are generated every day, according to the Climate Change Network of Kenya (CCNK).
The local government administration has linked the widespread charcoal burning to poor CSO presence due to insecurity. Its officials also say there is high demand for charcoal by the militia group Al-Shabaab. In 2013, the annual report of the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea estimated that Al-Shabaab’s charcoal exports to the Middle East could be as high as 24 million sacks per year, worth $360 to $384 million.
“Eastern and northern Kenya are potential sources of charcoal due to insecurity and a porous border with Somalia,” Joseph Ngondi, an official with CCNK, told Mongabay.
In January the US and Kenyan governments signed a memorandum of understanding under which the US will help Kenya fight environmental crime. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, while officiating the signing, said part of the agreement would improve surveillance technology to reduce crimes like charcoal trafficking.
“Land cover and satellite imagery is very helpful when it comes to understanding what is happening with illegal logging and deforestation for whatever purposes, whether it is for the export of lumber or charcoal,” Jewell told this reporter at the signing.
But such advances in technology may not fix civil society’s jinx, argues George Awalla, Head of Programmes at the Nairobi-based development NGO VSO Jitolee.
In Awalla’s view, CSOs are established for a purpose, which is largely to represent the poor and marginalized, and should stay true to their humanitarian missions. He added that there has been no evidence that civil society is involved in espionage and that the allegation is political,
Nevertheless, Awalla said that the Kenya NGOs Coordination Board (KNCB), a government body charged with regulating NGOs, should continue to ensure that there are mechanisms in place to weed out CSOs suspected of espionage or supporting unacceptable activities.
“There should be transparency and honesty in these matters so that we do not have a vendetta,” he said.
Officials dispute the widespread contention that the government is targeting or undermining CSOs.
At the KNCB office in the capital, Nairobi, it is unlikely that a visitor will be treated well by the General Service Unit officers who keep sentry there. On a normal day the board receives thousands of NGO representatives seeking services.
Scola, a communications officer who requested that only her first name be used because she is not authorized to speak to reporters on the subject, told Mongabay the KNCB’s mandate is to register CSOs. But she also said there is an investigative department that keeps vigil on CSOs. In the few years that she has worked there, she said, the investigation department has deregistered less than a dozen CSOs for allegedly being involved in questionable activities.
“The government of Kenya supports the civil society movement,” Scola said. “We act according to investigations which identify genuine CSOs and the rogue ones.”
The Kenya Parliamentary Committee on Environment and Natural Resources cautiously avoids denying or acknowledging that there could be CSOs in Kenya involved in questionable activities. But its chairperson, Amina Abdalla, argues that the law protects genuine civil society movements.
“The Constitution safeguards the due process in any allegation,” Abdalla told Mongabay, referring to the 2013 Public Benefits Organization Act which recognizes the establishment of CSOs. “Whoever has been accused of any sabotage activity will have their day in court and prove whether they are right or wrong.”
That assertion may appear farfetched to peasants like Mutuoboro. According to him, community conservation groups are at their lowest point in Kenya because of government harassment.
For now, it will take real government intervention for voices like Mutuoboro’s to be heard. But if the past is anything to go by, the politician’s may carry the day. And Mutuoboro, just like many other marginalized Kenyans, will continue to voice communities’ expectations on how their resources should be managed.