Keeping forests standing and restoring ecosystems is essential for the planet’s life. Legislators, however, while supporting activities to improve forest governance and clarify land use, must also recognise and strengthen community tenure rights over forest land.
While it is not the policy of New Peopleto offer explicit commentary on political situations in Kenya, there is one drama going on in the country that warrants some discussion from the environmental point of view. I realise, of course, that it is almost impossible to abstract the environmental from the political, economic and ethnic dimensions of the picture, and I do not think I am qualified to discuss these other aspects in this brief article.
I am talking about the state’s displacement of tens of thousands of people from the Mau Forest. Many of these people believe they have a right to be living in the forest, and making their living from the forest and its resources. They claim to have title deeds legitimating their presence in the forest.
There is no doubt that thousands of people have been victims of a scam in which they were sold invalid title deeds, and that various county officials have profited enormously from this illicit business. Many people have set up home, cleared forest, begun farming and settled, sometimes for decades, in the forest area. They are justifiably upset at being displaced from the land and being told that they have no right to be there.
On the other hand, the forest itself is being damaged, perhaps irreversibly, by the activities of the settlers. Clear-cutting for agriculture, chopping down trees for charcoal, and simply burning trees, are upsetting a fragile and important ecosystem. There are obvious effects that the eye can see, like soil erosion and runoff of soil into the streams, stretches of barren land that may not be in use any more, or piles of dead wood that has been left to decompose. An aerial view of the forest area shows that great patches of the forest have been completely flattened. What used to be a carpet canopy is now a patchwork of trees in places.
The invisible effects of human inhabitation of the forest are even more harmful. The carbon that had been stored for centuries by the felled trees is now released as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.
Some species of antelope and monkeys no longer have continuous corridors to move from a part of the forest to the next. So, when they move to new feeding grounds, they are exposed to hunting and predators as they cross bare swathes.
The rain-causing effect of the trees is enormously reduced, and this is contributing directly to a drier ‘water tower’. That means that the water stored in the earth is a fraction of what it normally is, and that directly reduces the year-long flow of rivers that come out of the Mau Complex. This year, for example, the Mara River is said to be only a trickle, which leaves the crocodiles and hippos exposed downstream, and directly effects the famous wildebeest migration between the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti.
But the effects are not only local: The headwaters of the Mara River are in the Mau forest, and the Mara is one of the main feeders for Lake Victoria. As less water flows into the lake, this has consequences for the people of the three countries bordering the lake: Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. And since the lake is the principle source of the Nile River, less water flowing into Lake Victoria means less water for the people of Uganda, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt, which lie along the Nile.
I have read that, in total, about 160 million people might be affected by the reduced water tower in the Mau forest.
The Kenyan government is a signatory to the Nile Basin Initiative, which aims at distributing fairly the waters of the world’s longest river. That means that Kenya has international obligations not to interrupt the supply of the waters of the Nile. The 40,000 people living in the Mau forest are, unfortunately, unknowingly jeopardising the livelihood of some 160 million people dependent on the Nile. The government had to take this into consideration, before evicting the residents. If it were possible for people to remain in the forest with no harmful effects on the water tower, on the flow of the rivers, and on the capture of greenhouse gases, perhaps the government would have introduced a different policy regarding human inhabitation of the forest.
By Peter Knox SJ