November 23, 2009, 11:31 am
By PETE BROWNE
Tim Freccia for The New York Times
The Kenyan government has started to force forest residents to leave their homes.
The Kenyan government has begun forcibly evicting thousands of people in an attempt to halt environmental degradation in the Mau Forest , one of the nation’s most critical ecosystems.
The 400,000 hectare forest is one of Kenya ’s most important water catchment areas, providing seasonal rainwater through a network of rivers to millions of Kenyans and an abundance of wildlife.
Over the last 20 years, a quarter of the forest has been destroyed, largely because of illegal logging and charcoal burning.
“The Mau catchment provides water to various basins and parks including the Mara River , the only perennial river in the region,” said Anne Mwangi, a spokeswoman for the World Wildlife Fund in East Africa . “Reports indicate that water flow in the Mara River has reduced considerably over the last 10 years. Extensive deforestation in its watershed, burgeoning human settlements, inappropriate land use and the proliferation of tourist facilities have all contributed to this reduced flow.”
Environmental and humanitarian groups, meanwhile, agree on the need to protect the forest, but the manner of the evictions is causing concern — particularly given Kenya ’s fragile coalition government and past tribal conflicts over land.
The forest is the traditional home of the Ogiek people, a small indigenous tribe, but in recent years outside groups have moved in.
“The Ogiek have lived in and cared for the Mau Forest for hundreds of years,” said Fiona Watson, research and field director at Survival International, an organization promoting the rights of indigenous cultures. “It’s doubly tragic that the very people who have conserved the Mau Forest for so many generations are now threatened with eviction because of deforestation caused by outsiders.”
The evictions are scheduled to take place over the coming few months. An estimated 30,000 families are expected to be relocated.
Rivers in neighboring Ethiopia and Tanzania are also fed from the Mau Forest catchment, as is Lake Victoria — Africa’s largest lake — and the Maasai Mara game reserve, one of Kenya’s most primary tourist attractions.
Kenya ’s power infrastructure has also been affected by shrinking water resources, including the 60 megawatt Sondu Miriu hydropower scheme and numerous geothermal plants. This year, severe droughts in Kenya led to rolling blackouts across the country, the closure of hydroelectric plants, and steep increases in power prices.
According to the United Nations, which started a $400 million campaign to save the forest in September, the rivers in the Mau ecosystem have the potential to generate 518 megawatts of hydro electricity, or 41 percent of Kenya ’s total need.
The ecosystem is estimated to be worth $275 million each year.