Africa, Environment, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT-KENYA: The People’s Campaign Against ‘Land Grabbing’

Judith Achieng'

NAIROBI, Oct 8 1998 (IPS) - Ten years ago, Joanna Stutchbury moved to Kiambu town, on the outskirts of the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, to start a new life.

She was attracted by the forest lands and the quite life around the forest.

“The forest is gone now,” she says. “The birds don’t sing anymore and the ponds have gone dry.”

The Kiambu forest — which covers an area of more than 1,000 hectares — was officially gazzeted to be protected after independence in 1963, but its trees have been disappearing despite a flood of protest letters to President Daniel arap Moi’s government.

“I have written letters, went to the press but the forest still went,” says Stutchbury.

This week Stutchbury and hundreds other protestors took to the streets to stop the “land grapping” by Kenya’s wealthy business people.

“They have grabbed every available space, now they are turning to forests. What will they leave for our children?” Stutchbury asks.

The “land grabbing” which began a few years ago in big cities has now reached Kenya’s smaller towns and villages.

The protesters burned down structures built in the Karura forest, about 7 kilometres from Nairobi, and destroyed a 40- billion-shilling machinery used to cut down trees by an unidentified private developer.

One US dollar is equal to 60 Kenya shillings.

Within the past one week alone, nearly 85 hectares out of Karura’s 1040-hectare forest trees have been flattened by one of the developers.

Ngong forest, near Nairobi, has also been affected. So has the area along the Indian Ocean coastal region where more than 90 percent of the communities there have been forced to live as squatters on land bought cheaply from the government by wealthy politicians and business people.

The “grabbers” are now threatening the tropical rain forests of Abardare on the slopes of Mount Kenya. Also threatened is the land around Kenya’s second largest Lake, Naivasha.

As much as a third of gazetted forests, about 3 percent of the East African country’s land surface, have disappeared in the past ten years, and if it continues, there will be no forests left to mop up pollution in the air, according to Kenya’s renown environmentalist Wangari Maathai.

“The destruction is overwhelming. And it is not done by poor people but by wealthy people and those who are politically well- connected in our society,” she says.

Environmental and human rights groups claim the allocation of public land is going on with the full knowledge of the government. “Public land belongs to the people of Kenya and the government is only holding it on trust,” says Odenda Lumumba of the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC). “But the government has betrayed the trust by allocating protected land to individuals.”

According to the campaigners, the long-term effects of rampant deforestation will include famine, hunger, diseases. “But because the negative impact of the ongoing destruction of forests and ecology is slow, we may be considered alarmist,” says Maathai.

The occasional drying up of Lake Nakuru, famous for its flamingo birds, are signs of degradation dealt on forests in the East African country, according to Maathai. “And perhaps in a matter of several decades, the wet areas of our country will have no water and future generations will be unable to grow food,” she says.

Maathai’s Green Belt Movement has embarked on a tree replanting programme. “This is a turning point, the beginning of rolling back through people’s power, until the government stops de- gazzeting and dishing out forest land with impunity,” she says.

The programme has been backed by opposition politicians. “These individuals should be warned that from now on they shall be stealing public land at their own risk,” says Paul Muite who was among 14 legislators who joined the movement in demolishing structures at Karura forest.

At least 1, 400 tree seedlings were re-planted in Karura this week. “We will be here as long as it takes to plant enough trees to replace what has been cut and we will protect those that are still standing,” says Maathai.

Stephen Mwangi who supervises the construction work at Karura forest, says his company has government’s full backing. “We have been here for three years legally and we even got maps from the government,” he says.

But the government has remained silent over the campaign.

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