Water is one of the most important, perhaps the most important, resources we obtain from forests. It is vital for all living things; it is life. Forests determine the quantity, rate and quality of water that flows into streams and therefore into rivers.
It then follows that careful management of forests is vital to ensure our present and future water needs can be met. It is for this reason that government’s everywhere create ministries or departments that they mandate with protecting and conserving forests and water resources.
Kenya’s present forest cover is estimated at around seven per cent, below the ten per cent required by the constitution. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, 7pc is about 3.4 million hectares, 654,000 of which is classified as primary forest, the most biodiverse and carbon-dense form of forest.
Between 1990 and 2010, Kenya lost an average of 12,000 hectares, which translates to about 0.32pc annually. In that period, the country lost 6.5pc of its forest cover, or about 241,000 ha.
We, it would seem, are a lot that places no value in figures. Only we should, because we are about to lose 20,000 hectares of our forest cover because some people are afraid they might lose an election ‒ or fail to win it by an appreciable margin ‒ if they do not allot that portion to people that have been encroaching on Kenya’s most important water tower, the Mau Forest.
The idea one gets is that like with everything else in Kenya, including the fight against corruption, the preservation of the Mau forest has proven to be proving an unyielding matter because too many political interests continue to stand in the way of a solution. Politicians have ensured that nothing changes in spite of ongoing destruction, which is only comparable to the looting spree at our national coffers. Former Prime Minister tried it once and it cost him dearly politically.
Successive governments since colonial times have hived portions of the forest and de-gazetted them for settlement. After the colonial government, and therefore the settlers, left, individuals invaded the forests, and they are now the people who claim to have lived in the Mau “for generations”. Their activities are well-documented: wanton destruction of the forest by cutting trees for charcoal burning and timber. As a consequence, rivers are drying up, and game life has been affected as we continue to eat into wetlands.
The objective of this elaborate description is that there are murmurs that government is preparing titles for those who already live within the forest, and more who may be resettled there. This is worrying because all our governments have been unwilling or unable to contain illegal logging or stopping environmental degradation.
Now more than ever, the world is looking to augment global forest cover by, among other measures, (re)growing forests. In Kenya, like most other places, we have witnessed unusually high temperatures and drying up of rivers, among other adverse effects of depleted rainfall.
We owe it to our forebears ‒ who preserved our forests for us ‒ and future generations to ensure we not only preserve what forest cover we have got left, but that we also add to it. Surely, there must be alternatives, and government is not without options to resettle those people elsewhere.
One of the dangers of allowing this continued stay in the Mau is that, with time, they will need more land, and if we let them know now that as long as there are politicians, concessions will always be made, there is no telling just how far this madness may go.
More than this, we also run the danger of having communities that presently live around and guard the other water towers ‒ Cherangany, Mt Kenya, the Aberdares, Mt Elgon ‒ invade and lay claim to them because “they did it, why can’t we?”
In any event, why the Mau?
Forests are gazetted because they are recognised for the important resources they are. Government must not let itself be bullied into meeting the needs of some at the expense of the rest. It is important to make the distinction between national and sectorial interests.
This is for you, Mr President. Do not let Kenyans down, please. We are looking up to you.