The eviction of those residing in Mau Forest is back in the news yet again. The issue has occupied that preeminent place for close to two decades now. My first formal engagement with the public discussions around the issues was a strategy discussion in the early 2000s with a group of lawyers who were opposing excision of the Mau forest complex.
Colleagues from Tanzania added to the opposition pointing out that the forest was important not just for Kenya but the entire region.
In 2019, after a Task Force Report, establishment of a Water Towers Agency, constitutional recognition of the importance of forests the problem will not just fade away. Mau has even been a campaign issue for the country’s presidential election. The need for conserving the forest and dealing with human encroachment needs no belaboring.
Anybody who does not appreciate that the Forest is a critical water tower, has huge environmental implication and requires to be conserved either is completely naïve or completely unwell. In addition, the importance of ensuring that human beings who get evicted should not be mistreated is also firmly settled and anchored in the country’s laws. The Land Act was even amended to provide for detailed guidelines on evictions whose rationale were to guarantee protection of fundamental rights and ensure humane treatment during the eviction process.
However, the greatest challenge in the entire process is the place of politics. Our penchant as a country of politicising every issue continues to be our Achilles heels. Watching politicians this past week debate the matter, one easily appreciates that until we have honesty in our political discourse the issue may not fizzle away soon.
The debate has unfortunately been reduced to a contestation of ethnicity, a claim of pursuit of a personal agenda by Environment Secretary Keriako Tobiko and a continuation in the path of settling political scores.
Resolving this issue should be fairly straight forward. The country needs to fully decide whether their commitment to forest conservation is genuine or not. Having made that decision, there is need to honestly determine whether the people in question are living on forest land or not.
Are the human settlement outside or inside the forest? If it is an area that should be within the forest, we should get them out. Up to this point the matter should be straight forward. The more problematic step will be to agree on whether the places human beings have occupied legally belong to them or is part of public land. The critical determinant is legally and not factually. Unfortunately resolving this issue takes the country back to the elusive debate around land reforms.
In 2005, Paul Ndungu chaired the Commission of Inquiry into the Illegal/ Irregular Allocation of Public Land. One of the lands in focus was Mau Forest. That report was not fully acted upon partly due to politics and partly because of a weak constitutional and legal framework.
In 2010, Kenya adopted a Constitution that spoke to this issue of illegal and irregular allocations of public land clearly pointing out that property rights do not vest in land illegally acquired. This is what should guide us in dealing with the Mau issue.
What is required is having determined whether the land in question around Mau is or is not part of the forest, we must make the next determination on propriety over its ownership. Unfortunately, this clear issue is being clouded in politics.
The country should ask itself why politicians are politicising the issue. Is it because they are speaking for the citizens? is it because they care about the forest? Is it because they see political mileage to be gained? Or is it because the fear that they are beneficiaries of any malfeasance that may have occurred around the forest excision several decades ago? These are the questions we need to confront. They will not go away however long we pepper over them.
Government must make firm commitment to solve this issue once and for all. This requires honest and committed political leadership. Without political will we will still be debating this issue for several generations.