Mau Forest: Where Do We Go From Here?

Published on 3rd June 2008

Of the three commonly known factors of production: land, labour and capital, land draws much more controversy than capital and labour.  This is primarily because the latter duo cannot operate without the former, at least for technologically challenged nations like Kenya.  For an economically budding nation whose backbone is agriculture, the significance of investing in the soil cannot be emphasized more. Land, in economic anthropology, is defined as “…everything in the universe that is not created by human beings which includes more than the mere surface of the earth.” This directly means that air, sunlight, forests, earth, water and minerals are all classified as land, as are all manner of natural forces or opportunities that are not created by people.

The debate of land ownership in Kenya is, to say the least, a controversial one. In the recent past, the wrestling to control the country’s major factor of production have turned tragic, with the recent post poll chaos providing the government with extra reason to cut out a long term solution. The final outcome of such brainstorming sessions is not expected to be a unitary declaration that will apply to every scenario. This is because issues surrounding land ownership are not static and continue to mutate with time.  Take for example the much publicized ‘Mau Forest saga’

Mau Forest is no ordinary water catchment area. Covering 320,000 hectares, it is the largest single indigenous forest in Kenya. Eight major rivers and five major lakes owe their existence to this endangered natural resource. Perhaps the biting reality that 10% of Kenyans derive their breath from it may sound a warning bell for anyone underestimating its potential. Its potential has already been downplayed by communities settling around it as evidenced by  the lowering of the water table. With the world currently facing massive food shortages, with vivid signs of starvation looming from the horizon, Kenyans have nowhere to turn to for help except for reclaiming its diminishing prized asset. But the question in everyone’s lips is: where do we take the communities living around it?

In Kenya, as in traditional Africa, land is always handed down from our forefathers. This means that the government, with its noble ideas to conserve the environment, holds no right to ‘evict’ me from my ancestral land, the only other piece of asset that ties me with my entire lineage-after blood. With Kenya getting wide coverage from the world during the post election violence earlier this year, and with land issues continuing to up political temperatures, no government advisory board would recommend the eviction of the indigenous communities settling around Mau Forest as a solution to saving this natural heritage. It is therefore, suffices to say, that the involvement of the communities in this exercise is the first step towards achieving the desired objectives. With a predominant subsistence economy, land is the communities’ only livelihood source. By ‘reclaiming’ the original boundary of The Mau, change will force the communities to adjust their modes of production and this is the spine of all the controversies around this initiative.

Resettlement is the word coming out of everyone’s lips now. History has it that the resettlement option cannot take root if the underlying causes are not addressed.

Since all these issues stem from the fact 10% of Kenyans control 90% of the economy, the majority find themselves clumped up in manmade reserves with partial to total dependence on the elites who choose to leave ‘their land’ in an idle state. Being in the lower cadre of the nation’s economic pyramid, the indigenous communities would make do with suggestions that are geared towards ‘putting food on their table’. It means that with guaranteed subsistence agriculture, they shall accept a tentative plan to move them to their new abode as their long term economic issues get addressed by the government, in the meantime saving the beautiful Mau from turning into an eyesore.

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