When the government evicted 300 families from Maasai Mau forest early this month, many breathed a sigh of relief with a hope that the complex Mega Water Catchment forest would regain its glory.
Last July 9 , Narok County Commissioner George Natembeya, told press briefing in his office that about 7700 people had been evicted, two temporary schools and two churches destroyed in the first phase of evictions.
Natembeya said Nkoben and Kosia part of Maasai Mau forest covering 12, 000 hectares had been cleared from human settlement.
He thanked a multi-agency operation team that comprised of over 200 security guards from Kenya Forest Service, Kenya Wildlife Service and County Rangers for carrying out the operation in the forest land.
In the first week of the evictions, everything seemed okay as the county commissioner confirmed that the squatters were moving out with ease.
We had earlier sensitized the evictees and they were moving out willingly, we are doing this operation in broad daylight and the media is invited to cover, said Natembeya.
He continued to say that majority of those who were inhabiting the forest were from far flung Sub-counties who are suspected to have bought the forest land with as low as Sh. 20, 000 per acre from unauthorized dealers.
Among those evicted hailed from Kisii, Transmara West and East, Bomet, Sotik and Bungoma where they sold their lands to settle in the forest. This is completely unacceptable, said the Commissioner.
However, on July 14, things took a different twist when Bomet Central Legislator Ronald Tonui accompanied by Ololulunga Member of County Assembly (MCA) Jefferson Langat and his Melelo counterpart Philemon Aruasa visited the affected families at Kosia area to donated foodstuff and beddings.
The politicians blamed Natembeya for evicting people and urged the residents not to be cowed by the commissioner.
But Natembeya dared the politicians to swallow the bitter pill and allow people to move from the forest vowing no evicted person would go back in the government forest.
Since then, politicians drawn from North Rift region have been up in arms in what they termed as inhumane treatment of the forest evictees.
Led by Senate Majority leader, Kipchumba Murkomen, the politicians asked the residents not to move out of the forest land until they were duly compensated by the government.
Forest boundary was key argument accusing Natembeya of creating a new cut-line in the ongoing evictions.
While the political leaders insist that the cutline should be Nyayo Tea Zone, Natembeya insists that the only legal boundary is the one set out in 2009.
Deputy President, William Ruto, while announcing the evictions on June 24 said that the cut-line will be the tea buffer zone.
Natembeya said the tea zone cut-line was only to separate the Olposimoru Forest and the Maasai Mau and not to determine the boundary.
The Maasai Mau Forest is under the county government of Narok. The Olposimoru is under the Kenya Forest Service. When the tea was planted in Olposimoru, those evicted came to Maasai Mau, Natembeya told the press.
He continued that in the 2015 cut-line, the Nyayo Tea Zone planted tea in a 25 kilometer stretch creating a buffer zone in a bid to separate the Maasai Mau section of the forest under the county government of Narok with Olposimoru Forest which is managed by Kenya Forest Service.
The Maasai Mau forest, where the eviction is on-going, was not captured in the list of zones where tea was planted to develop a cut-line.
It is not for the county commissioner to determine where the cut-line is. It is his job to just execute orders by government. The tea marking the boundary has been planted by government and all the schools in there were built by government. Who is Natembeya to decide where the cut-line is? wondered Kericho Senator Aaron Cheruiyot while in Kitoben Primary school over the weekend.
Cheruiyot’s sentiments were shared by his Baringo counterpart and Kanu Chairman Gideon Moi who alleged that no person had gone beyond the the cut- line.
Moi, while speaking at Triangle area, promised to engage the government to find the way forward so as to resolve the issue once and for all.
We are disturbed by the way some citizens are suffering because they have been left homeless. These people have done no mistake at all yet they have been mistreated. That is inhuman and cannot be tolerated, he said.
Moi who was accompanied by KANU secretary general Nick Salat and former Bomet Governor Isaac Ruto wondered why the government was conducting the exercise alleging that no one was living beyond the forest cut line.
No self-respecting person can treat another human being the way these people have been treated. Some of these people have genuine title deeds, the sanctity of this document should be respected, he reiterated.
I have come here, and I have seen that no one has crossed the cut-line we were told. So, what is the problem? Majority of these people have title deeds, yet their houses have been burnt, children have gotten lost and old men are stranded at their demolished houses, lamented Moi.
But efforts to save the complex Mau forest has not begun today, over a decade ago, an initiative to conserve the forest was initiated by the then Prime Minister Raila Odinga but failed to succeed after politics was introduced in the process.
Over a decade down the line, the same debate has cropped up with no lasting solution to save the Mau complex forest that serves as a water tower for many rivers that lead to Lake Victoria, including the Mara River that is the lifeline of the wildlife in the expansive Maasai Mara Game Reserve.
Though the forest reserve was gazette in 1954, the current state of forest is said to be caused by careless land subdivision by members of group ranches.
The Maasai Mau was initially a trust land under the defunct Narok County Council that many observers say failed to secure the integrity of the forest during its existence.
Powerful political families then took advantage of the influx of non-Maasai groups into Narok South, the group ranches that include Sisiyan, Nkaroni, Enoosokon and Reyio and illegally increased the sizes of the ranches from the original allocations opening the floodgates to forest encroachers.
The arrival of settlers from afar, have over the years become the subject of heated political exchanges since they form part of a critical voting bloc in the Rift Valley.
Natembeya, however maintained that no person evicted from the forest land would go back and challenge the politicians to sensitize the encroachers on the importance of the forest instead of fooling them that they will continue living in the forest land.
These people have suffered too long because of such political games, it is time we engage in mature talks where we tell our people the truth so that we can save Mau once and for all, said Natembeya.
Natembeya instead insisted that he was consulting with the relevant stakeholders in order to carry out a second phase of eviction that will target over 40, 000 people being removed from the forest land.
It is not clear whether the government will revoke the title deeds of those possessing land documents or will offer compensation for their land.
On the ground, residents have asked the government to grant them permits to exhume bodies of their beloved ones whom they had buried in the evicted land so that they can carry them along.
Led by Benard Arap Sang, the residents insisted they had lived in the forest land for over 20 years wondering where their next move would be if evicted from the forest.
Source: Kenya News Agency