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Mau Forest rehabilitation still overshadowed by forced evictions

  • More than 50,000 people have been forcefully evicted from Kenya’s ecologically important Mau Forest in the past decade.
  • With few options to relocate, evicted smallholders and others continue to enter the forest in search of grazing and fuel.
  • The Kenya Water Tower Agency has built electrified fencing, but encroachers have torn sections of this down.
  • Enlisting evictees to create tree nurseries and support for alternative livelihoods points the way to more constructive approaches.

MAASAI MAU, Kenya — Two years ago, Kenyan authorities evicted 30,000 people from their homes in the Maasai Mau section of the Mau Forest. The evictees, many of whom had been living here for 20 years or more, say they’ve been stripped of land they paid for and have nowhere else to go.

The Mau forest, 140 kilometers (87 miles) south of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, was declared a forest reserve in the 1950s. The Kenya Forest Service says it’s the largest remaining indigenous forest in Kenya, covering 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres). The forest also includes areas of exotic commercial trees planted by the forest department.

The headwaters for many of the region’s most important rivers are found here, including the source of the Mara River, which supports the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem. These rivers are also vital to thousands of communities that depend on them for water for agriculture and domestic use.

The southwestern highlands surrounding the forest are densely populated with farmers and herders.

Francis Serem moved to the Maasai Mau section of the forest 20 years ago from Kericho county, some 50 km (30 mi) further west. In his mid-50s at the time, he says he paid $600 to a former chief of the area. “I moved here because this place is fertile for farming and it was affordable. This has been my home for the better part of my life,” he says.

He set up on 2 hectares (5 acres) growing tea and maize. Tens of thousands of others made the same journey. This growing population put tremendous pressure on the forest complex, clearing large areas for farms and houses, cutting down trees for fuel, burning down sections of forest to clear land to graze cattle.

Mariana Rufino, a professor at Lancaster University in the U.K. who studies the impacts of climate change on farm systems, says land-use changes have caused significant damage to the Mau Forest. “Over the last 15 years, 10% of the forest cover has declined due to illegal forest extraction. This is affecting wildlife population in both Kenya and Tanzania, as well as communities depending on the rivers flowing from Mau,” she says.

The Kenya Water Tower Agency, formed in 2012 under the Kenyan Ministry of Environment and Forestry to coordinate the rehabilitation of the critical watersheds across the country, says a quarter of the forest has been lost since the wave of in-migration began in 2000 — 100,000 hectares, or 247,000 acres — with the Maasai Mau section most affected.

Under the direction of the environment ministry, officers from the Kenya Wildlife Service, Kenya Forest Service, and the national police have evicted more than 50,000 people from more than 45,000 hectares (111,000 acres) of forest since 2009. In 2019, researchers with Human Rights Watch found that the evictions involved excessive force: houses were burned down, people were beaten, and crops were destroyed. Nine deaths were reported.

Paul Rono, the organizing secretary of the Mara Water Users Association, an organization that brings together different communities living around Mau Forest areas, says some of those evicted have not given up using the forest. “Some community members have not yet accepted to let go of the forest. They still cut down trees for charcoal burning and timber.”

There are also substantial numbers of cattle in the forest that don’t belong to evictees; commercial beef producers have long grazed cattle in the forest to fatten them up for sale.

In January 2021, the Kenya Water Tower Agency began fencing off the Maasai Mau section. “There is some livestock in the forest area but [who] the owners [are] we can’t tell. That’s another reason why we are putting up this fence because we want to keep them out,” says Cornel Omondi, the KWTA’s regional coordinator.

With few options to relocate elsewhere, some people continue  to enter the forest in search of grazing and fuel. Image by Keit Silale for Mongabay.
In January 2021, the Kenya Water Tower Agency began fencing off the Maasai Mau section. Image by Keit Silale for Mongabay.

Omondi says the fence will help to prevent livestock from entering the forest. “Mau Forest is so degraded and the only way to save the forest is to rehabilitate it. Fencing is helping in keeping people out of the forest as we work towards rehabilitating the areas that are so degraded.”

But last October, authorities found sections of the fence had been destroyed. Herders and residents of a makeshift camp of activities near the reserve boundary were accused of tearing down nearly a kilometer (0.6 mi) of the fence to gain access. Four people were arrested and charged.

“We are going extra miles to rehabilitate the Mau Forest complex, but if communities are not going to embrace the restoration activities then we are doing zero work,” Omondi says.

Like Serem, Mugor Kiplem has lived in the Maasai Mau for 20 years. Kiplem says thousands like him have been evicted despite possessing title deeds to show ownership of the land. Deprived of farmland, some continue to enter the forest.

“How can we survive with no farmland? I bought the land and I have every document that shows I am the owner. But the government is not helping or compensating us in any way and I have to survive,” he says.

The claims to land ownership are tangled. The government’s position, most recently expressed by the environment minister in 2020, is that all evictees were in the forest reserve illegally and would have to claim repayment from whoever originally — fraudulently — sold them land. When the land ministry invited people to present their title deeds for verification, it ruled that while some were legal documents, they had been issued irregularly; some officials are now under investigation. But the Kenya Human Rights Commission says some settlers’ title deeds are legitimate and argues that the government has denied thousands of evictees due process of law by cancelling or disregarding their claims.

Some of the evicted have established tree nurseries to supply to the KWTA, while others are working directly to plant the seedlings. Image by Keit Silale for Mongabay.

With tens of thousands of people affected, the matter is politically sensitive. In October 2021, the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) began hearing a case filed by the governor of Kericho county, demanding compensation for the evictees.

Kiplem says he hopes the EACJ ruling will be favorable. The new fence has cut through the tiny plot of land adjacent to the forest that he was left with after the evictions. “This fence has blocked us from accessing even water. It is not helping us and it should be removed because we are suffering.”

Meanwhile, the KWTA is working to rehabilitate the reclaimed areas; it says it has planted more than 2.2 million trees. The reforestation work has offered alternative livelihoods to at least some of those evicted. Some have established tree nurseries to supply to the agency, while others are working directly to plant the seedlings.

The KWTA is also allowing controlled harvesting of grass inside the reserve to feed cattle and supporting programs to help livestock owners improve their herds.

Kenya’s Indigenous Ogiek partner with government rangers to restore Mau Forest

Banner image: Farmer in the Mau Forest region. Image by Sande Murunga/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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