Forest of controversy grows in Kenya

A plan to allow settlement in protected woodlands draws allegations of political corruption.

In its annual edition chronicling corruption, the popular Kenyan daily "The Standard" accuses the government this year of the usual misdeeds - from nepotism to blackmail to theft. But a new allegation also surfaced: President Daniel Arap Moi is accused of sacrificing virgin forest for political gain.

The article echoes an outcry by environmentalists, opposition politicians, and the public here against a government decision to parcel out some 168,000 acres - 10 percent - of Kenya's protected woodlands.

"It is difficult to understand the logic behind this government decision," says John Githongo, head of the Kenya office of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, "except that land is the most valuable patronage resource available today ... and it's a safe assumption that this is politically motivated."

The government denies using forest lands for patronage, and says the areas will be used to resettle landless people.

Critics say that cutting down the trees will worsen a two-year drought in Kenya, already suffering from desertification. The forest tracts are a vital water catchment area, ecologists say, and losing them could worsen the cycle of drought and food shortages affecting Kenya. According to official statistics, about 10 million of the nation's 30 million people live in poverty in arid or semi-arid areas.

Environment Minister Francis Nyenze defends the plan, saying it redefines forest boundaries in areas already occupied by squatters, prevents further encroachment, and gives land to the needy.

The practice of excising areas of forest "started with the colonial government in 1933 and has been going on since then as the need arises to settle poor, landless people," the minister says.

Opponents of the plan, however, say that prime forest land is being handed over by the government to supporters as a way of currying favor before next year's expected elections.

"Too bad those poor and needy happen to actually be the rich and politically powerful of this country," well-known ecologist and Green Belt movement coordinator Wangari Maathai scoffs. "It is not the poor we are dealing with here ... this is corruption," she says. "In this country we encourage mismanagement of our resources, and then we complain that we are poor."

Ms. Maathai was arrested earlier this month for encouraging opposition to the government's decision and spent a night in jail before being released without charges.

Critics of the government's decision won a victory last weekend, after a court ordered a temporary halt of the forest plan. But, pointing to past experience, the opponents say the project will probably go forward anyway. Shortly before the last elections in 1997, Mr. Moi flouted a court injunction and reportedly handed out 700 unofficial title deeds to forest land.

Lands Minister Joseph Nyagah, meanwhile, is now discussing intentions to excise another 10,000 acres of forest beyond the acres already slated for settlement.

"What is happening in Kenya is happening to a greater and lesser extent all over Africa," a senior official at the Nairobi-headquartered United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) says, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It is not a lack of awareness - just a lack of long-term policy."

The problem, says the official, is that in countries like Kenya, where there is both economic and political instability - people think in the short term. "Moi," he says, "is looking towards elections 2002 and not a day beyond - and that is tragic."

The majority of Kenya is semiarid or desert, and depends on a few scattered catchments in mountainous areas for water. Forests there regulate the water supply, sponging it up during the rains and releasing it during the dry season. Deforestation could reduce Kenya's water supply and soil fertility, and affect operations at hydroelectric plants, which, even under normal conditions, are not keeping up with the nation's demand for energy.

Woodlands included in this year's planned excision include Mount Kenya, Mount Elgon, and parts of the Rift Valley Province.

The current drought and chronic power and water shortages throughout the country have spurred large IMF emergency loans. More than 4 million Kenyans are in need of continuing emergency drought relief, according to the UN.

While it's clear UNEP does not want a direct confrontation with Kenyan authorities, their calls for re-thinking the deforestation plan are becoming increasingly blunt. In a recent speech on the world's water supply, UNEP executive director Klaus Toepfer - carefully avoiding singling out Kenya - spoke of perils of indiscriminate deforestation.

"History provides grim reminders that failure to manage our water resources properly has caused the end of civilizations - in Mesopotamia, but also in other countries, such asEthiopia, where the ancient civilization of Aksum collapsed - partly because of deforestation and its consequent water-related impacts," Toepfer said.

Material from Agence France Press was used in this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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