As the country’s biggest water catchment area, the Mau forest occupies a central place in the economic and ecological lifeline of the Kenyan people.Indeed, the Kenya national economy stands to lose over US $300 million to the tea, tourism and energy sectors alone if the forest of the Mau Complex continues to be degraded.
The Mau Complex is the largest remaining closed canopy forest block in Eastern Africa.
It forms upper catchments of all, but one, rivers that drain west of the Rift Valley, including Nzoia, Yala, Nyando, Sondu and Mara, which drain into Lake Victoria.
It is also the main catchment of critical lakes and wetlands in the Rift Valley region, including lakes Baringo, Nakuru, Naivasha, Natron and Turkana. The forests of the Mau Complex are also very rich in flora and fauna.
Despite their importance, these forests are highly threatened mainly by settlements and logging for charcoal, timber, posts and poles.
Early this year , the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Kenya Forests Working Group (KFWG) and the Ewaso Ngiro South Development Authority (ENSDA) conducted an aerial survey to determine status of some of the Mau Complex forest blocks following complaints that there was increased forest destruction after the disputed 2007 December presidential elections.
Extensive encroachments at Mau Forests in Kenya.
Following the survey, the Kenya Government came out strong to announce that the complex will be reclaimed despite protests.
Last month, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga braved threats from a section of Members of Parliament from the Rift Valley region who oppose the removal of those settled in the forest, and formed a task force that will work with local communities in addressing the Mau issue.
The committee will demarcate and fence off the 400,000-hectare Mau complex, a lifeline for millions of people. It will also mobilise resources to restore the water tower.
The PM said he was against “populist leadership” but maintained he was not turning his back on supporters.
“Populist leadership can easily ruin a country. The whole world knows that what is happening in Mau is not sustainable. It will not destroy the Rift Valley alone, but the entire sub-region,” Raila said.
The PM says studies have shown that the flooding in many parts of the country, the silting making the lakes shallower have to do with the degradation of the Mau complex.
He cited the Sondu and Mara river systems, which flow into Lake Victoria the Africa’s largest fresh water lake , and the Ewaso Ngiro system, which flows into Lake Natron, as some of the endangered water masses.
The Mau, he said, is also the main watershed for Lake Nakuru, which is fed by the Njoro, Makalia and Enderit rivers.
If River Mara dies, he said, the world famous Masai Mara in Kenya and parts of the Serengeti in northern Tanzania would also die.
If we allow the Mau to deteriorate further, tea planting will end in the Rift Valley. Even growing of maize will end. The region is experiencing less and less rain,” he says.
“Soon we will have a desert and pass it to our children. Is that the legacy we want? We decided that Mau requires progressive leadership and that is the way it will be,” he adds.
After his tour in the forest, the Prime Minister maintains the people being removed from the Mau would be given alternative land.
“Some say the people in Mau have title deeds. But the truth is, they should not have been there. It is like buying a pair of suits from somebody who had stolen it. When you are caught, it will be taken away, and then you will be charged with handling stolen property. In our case, we are saying, just give us back the suit; we will give you other clothes to wear. The people in Mau will be given alternative land,” the PM said.
The Mau Forests issue has become more complex politically and many analysts believe it has cost the Prime Minister his political popularity since the December 2007 General election. Now that politicians from the wider Rift Valley Region have issued threats of withdraw their support from him.
But the Prime Minister who is often described as the centre of gravity of Kenya’s politics has stood his grounds and said that leaders are elected to lead, not to follow the people.
“You can’t tell people to follow you then you remain behind. You must move in front. That is what I have done in regard to the Mau Forest. Leaders often have information and data that their followers don’t have. We have a duty to educate the people,” the PM says.
As a leader, some of the issues you have to take up may be unpopular but very, very critical to the survival of the nation. You must take a stand. There may be some populist positions but they may be detrimental to the nation in the long run. Leaders have to advise people against bad practises. In the long run, the nation will appreciate.” He adds.
The impact of the destructions is being felt in the entire East Africa region. The Tanzanian government has already formally protested about the effects the Mau degradation is costing her environment and economy, while the Uganda and Egypt governments are said to be closely watching how Kenya will resolve this Mau fiasco that has now taken an international dimension.