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Kenya’s water tower becomes flashpoint amid eviction

NAIROBI (Xinhua) -- The Mau forest complex which is the largest water tower in Kenya has become a flashpoint as state officers and lawmakers take divergent positions regarding eviction of settlers in the biodiversity hotspot.

Eviction of communities who settled in Mau forest following a presidential directive to boost its conservation has elicited sharp reaction from elected representatives in the counties.

The lawmakers affiliated with the ruling Jubilee Party have protested the manner in which eviction of Mau settlers has been conducted by administrators from the national government.

Kipchumba Murkomen, the leader of majority in the Senate, during a visit to Mau forest condemned the ongoing eviction of settlers terming it a violation of their rights.

The senator from Elgeyo Marakwet County in north rift region faulted state officials who ordered removal of settlers from their farms, alleging that they had title deeds to prove ownership of land on the edges of Mau forest.

“We condemn in the strongest terms the forceful removal of families that have legal ownership of land in the Mau forest and urge the state to intervene speedily before a crisis erupt,” Murkomen said.

He was accompanied by lawmakers from the Rift Valley counties of Kericho and Bomet where majority of Mau settlers trace their roots.

The political leaders while addressing a public rally on the sidelines of Mau forest complex vowed to push for a halt on the eviction exercise while promising support to communities to help  them construct new homes.

As the Mau eviction exercise widened the rift within the ruling Jubilee coalition, top officials moved with speed to clarify that it was in line with the party’s manifesto to promote conservation of water towers.

Raphael Tuju, the Secretary General of Jubilee Party and Minister without Portfolio, downplayed the likelihood of a major fallout as a result of eviction of settlers from one of the most strategic water towers in the region.

“Our position is that removal of settlers who encroached illegally on the Mau forest is purely a conservation issue that should not be politicized at this moment,” Tuju told reporters on Sunday.

“The top party hierarchy including the president and his deputy have reaffirmed their commitment to conserve this national asset and we believe sideshows are not in the best interest of the country’s forest conservation agenda,” he added.

President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto had earlier endorsed eviction of settlers from Mau forest complex that occupies an area of 273,300 hectares to pave way for its restoration amid rampant depletion.

Conservation of this ecosystem that is source of rivers which support millions of livelihoods in downstream counties of Rift Valley and Western Kenya, remains a hot button issue due to political interference.

The Mau forest that was for centuries inhabited by indigenous communities, who were hunters and bee keepers, is currently home to a large multitude of new comers who were allocated land there by post-independence regimes.

Massive clearance of this forest complex to pave way for settlers has put the livelihoods of downstream communities on the line thanks to drying of rivers and siltation of hydro-power dams.

The UN Environment Program (UNEP) in a report launched in July 2008 said that Kenya could lose nature-based assets worth 300 million U.S. dollars if destruction of Mau forest was not contained.

In 2009, the Kenyan government and UNEP launched a 400 million dollar appeal to help save Mau forest complex that had already lost an estimated 107,000 hectares to illegal settlements.

A taskforce to fast-track restoration of degraded portions of Mau forest comprising senior policymakers, industry executives, representatives of bilateral agencies and civil society is already in place though its activities have been muted due to political rhetoric.

Benson Ochieng, a Nairobi based environmental lawyer, said that politicization of Mau forest conservation is detrimental to Kenya’s green and sustainability agenda.

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