The Mau Forest Complex in Kenya is key to the environmental health of large swathes of not only Kenya but surrounding countries. But over the decades, this vital asset has been plundered, to the point of crisis. The implications are dire. Wanjohi Kabukuru reports from Nairobi.
Kakwetin Lesinjo is a member of the Ogiek, an indigenous forest-dwelling community who inhabit the Mau Forest in Kenya's Rift Valley. He has watched with horror as the destruction of what he considers his home has continued unabated over the years.
"The tragedy of the Mau destruction is corruption, bad politics and a refusal to listen to our scientists," Lesinjo says.
The Mau is generating serious political and environmental interest as it is fast mutating to become a classic case study of resource-based conflict, with much wider repercussions hundreds of kilometres away.
"In the past three decades or so, the Mau Forest Complex has undergone significant land use changes, due to an increased human population demanding land for settlement and subsistence agriculture," says Peter Musula, a hydrologist at the University of Venda in South Africa, who has studied the Mau ecosystem.
"Today, the effects of the anthropogenic activities are slowly taking their toll, as is evident from the diminishing river discharges during periods of low flows, and the deterioration of river water qualities, through pollution from point and non-point sources," says Musula.
Decades-old politically instigated encroachment, which started after independence in 1963 and increased in the 80s and 90s, has led to extensive illegal, irregular and ill-planned settlements.
A decade ago, the early warning assessment division of the Nairobi-based UN Environment Agency warned of the grim prospects fomented by continual deforestation at the complex. "Kenya stands to lose an economic asset worth over $300m if the forest in the Mau Complex continues to be degraded and destroyed," UN Environment warned in 2008.
Haphazard governmental interventions, largely consisting of forced evictions to relocate settlers away from the complex, and discordant reforestation efforts, have been unsuccessful.
Further complicating the issue, politicians drawn from the different communities involved have taken sides, igniting communal animosity and apprehension at the expense or sound environmental conservation practices.
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