Destruction of Kenya's Forest Feeds Deadly Drought

By: Katherine Houreld - AP Writer
By: Katherine Houreld - AP Writer

More than 200 of Ole Saloli's cows have died, ruining his children's inheritance and his safety net for old age. Now he wanders miles seeking pasture for the surviving animals, his bare feet as cracked and dry as the Kenyan earth he sleeps upon.

Saloli, who estimates he is around 80 years old, has seen many
droughts. But he says they have gotten much, much worse since the
devastation of the Mau Forest began.

"Mau Forest was created by God to make it rain and now people
are destroying it," Saloli said bitterly as he watched his 50
remaining cows searching for forage in the dust.

The United Nations Environment Program estimates 10 million
Kenyans depend on the rivers that flow out of the Mau Forest to
irrigate their crops, provide electricity through hydroelectric
dams, or supply water for the wild animals that draw hundreds of
thousands of cash-flush tourists.

But charcoal burners, loggers and farmers are felling the
forest's trees. A quarter already has been cut down, and
long-simmering tensions over land, water and politics complicate
the struggle to save the rest.

The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that more
than 9 percent of Africa's forests were lost between 1990 and 2005,
depriving the world of a giant carbon sink and wreaking havoc with
local ecosystems.

Forests produce their own moist microclimate, inducing rain and
protecting water in the soil from evaporation. The Mau is Kenya's
biggest water catchment area and the rivers that flow from it also
feed the vast savannah of the Maasai Mara as well as four other
national parks.

The destruction has exacerbated a drought that swept across East
Africa, leaving 23 million people in need of food aid this year,
according to aid organization Oxfam. The rains finally returned
this week, but the forest destruction continues to threaten the
region's ecosystem.

One result: All the rivers that feed the famous flamingo-rimmed
Nakuru Lake have dried up. Only a trickle from a spring and the
sewage from town are still flowing, bringing in a steady flow of
plastic bags and worse.

"It's not the bodies, it's the lake," park warden Vincent
Ongwae says ruefully of the overwhelming stench as he picks his way
between buffalo carcasses. His boots crush flamingo bones into a
delicate mosaic in the mud.

As the lake has receded, it has become too salty for the animals
to drink. Those weakened by hunger, like the buffalo, become mired
in the mud as they try to quench their thirst, eventually dying of
exhaustion.

Ongwae has been helping pump fresh water for the animals to
drink, but fears such scenes represent the park's future unless the
forest is saved.

The Mau's destruction began around two decades ago under former
president Daniel arap Moi, who carved out huge chunks for himself
and his political supporters. Some beneficiaries subdivided the
tracts, selling plots to smaller farmers.

After Moi stood down in 2003, conservationists began a campaign
to save the forest. In 2005, police swept through the area, burning
down homes without warning. But in 2007, President Mwai Kibaki
invited the settlers back in what they say was a flagrant attempt
to win votes ahead of a closely fought presidential election. Now
the government says they must go again.

"These politicians have been kicking us around like a
football," complained farmer Elijah Busiene as he led his heavily
burdened donkey past the remains of his former home.

Busiene's family bought title deeds 15 years ago in areas of the
forest they believed they were allowed to settle in. They were
burned out, invited back, and now say they won't go without
compensation for the green fields of tall corn and cabbages they've
planted.

Despite the destruction, the rains here are so constant that
farmers like Busiene can plant year-round. It will be a struggle to
find somewhere this good, and like many others his family sold all
their original land to move to the Mau. Other families who live
here, like the members of the honey-gathering Ogiek tribe, say they
have no other home.

Kenya has said it will compensate farmers who hold genuine title
deeds. But they are far outnumbered by illegal squatters and
inhabitants with more complicated claims, like the Ogiek.

Politicians have polarized the debate, reviving tensions that
exploded in the wake of the disputed 2007 elections. More than
1,000 people were killed after political riots were fueled by
grievances over land and ethnically divisive rhetoric.

But the recent drought has united more Kenyans behind efforts to
save the forest.

The government taskforce set up to save the Mau Forest said it
is ready to start evictions as early as next month.

"We are holding this forest in trust for everybody," said
forestry official Anthony Maina. "Having water is the bedrock of
society. All industries, from electricity generation to agriculture
to tourism depend on it."


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