Calls to lift Mau Forest caveats akin to walking a tightrope

  • 2 Dec 2022
  • 2 Mins Read
  • 〜 by Annette Muindi

The Mau Forest Complex is located about 170km north-west of Nairobi. The forest is the largest remaining indigenous forest in Kenya. It covers over 400,000 hectares, and is the largest of the country’s five water towers as well as the largest closed-canopy forest ecosystem. The complex forms part of the upper water catchment area and is the catchment for Lake Victoria and the White Nile. It also has numerous rivers originating from it which carry Mau waters throughout western Kenya to Lake Turkana in the north and Lake Natron in the south. However, as beautiful as the forest is, it has had a turbulent history filled with illegal logging, encroachment and eviction of indigenous communities in the area.

The Mau crisis started when the trust land was allocated to a group of ranches. The real problem came about when the ranches went beyond the cutline and occupied forest land. In 2008, there was a political row over the resettlement of people in the Mau Forest. They had been allocated land during the KANU-era in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2004, the famous Ndung’u Report listed these land allocations as illegal and recommended the revocation of their tittle deeds.

Some evictions were done between 2004 and 2006 without a resettlement option. In July 2008, the Kibaki regime through the then Prime Minister Raila Odinga ordered another eviction to be effected by October 2008 in order to protect the forest from destruction.

In 2005, the government placed a caveat on all title deeds issued to claimants, saying they were irregularly issued. But in 2014, a section of politicians claimed the caveat was only to woo them to vote for them in the 2017 General Election. While some had genuine title deeds, others did not. It further emerged that those who first bought the land subdivided it and sold it to other ‘outsiders’ even without the title deeds.

Today, South Rift leaders from four counties have embarked on a fresh bid to push for the lifting of a caveat imposed more than 20 years ago on land on the fringes of the expansive Mau forest. The leaders from Nakuru, Kericho, Bomet and Narok have appealed to President William Ruto to order the lifting of the caveat. The caveat, they argue, has impoverished residents and reduced land owners to abject poverty though they have title deeds for the parcels of land.

A week ago, the matter was extensively debated in the Nakuru County Assembly, where ward representatives called for the lifting of the caveat. The caveat was imposed on various parts of the South Rift due to protracted land disputes and what the government thought was a way to stop illegal land transactions on the fringes of the forest. Residents say the caveat has created uncertainty over ownership of land and is responsible for hostility among communities in the areas.

The caveat sparked the filing of several unresolved court cases that have made it difficult for the government to lift the caveat. For several years, parts of Nakuru where the caveat is in place have witnessed vicious land disputes that sometimes turned bloody. Land conflicts in areas such as Njoro, Molo and Kuresoi South and parts of Mau Narok have previously led to deaths of dozens of people.

While there are some benefits to lifting the caveat on sections of the Mau forest, there is still some concern that history may repeat itself. The current government needs to strike a balance between conserving the forest and providing access to land.