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Mau Forest Residents Decry Violent Evictions

Twelve-year-old Nicholas Kiptum was traumatized when Kenyan police destroyed his school in early June.

A member of the Kipsigis community, Kiptum described the police action as "brutal, horrific and inhuman ... those people did not spare even schools and learning materials."

Sanctioned by the Kenyan cabinet, police forcibly evicted an estimated 2,750 families, about 10,000 people, and burned homes in the Narok District of the Mau Forest complex. The eviction destroyed seven primary schools, affecting 2,721 students.

"The decision to evict followed a six-month study by a government task force that looked into the problem of encroachment in Mau Forest," Mary Ngaruma, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Lands and Housing, told Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN).

The Forest Action Network (FAN) said the Narok County Council authorized the evictions to rehabilitate the forest's environment. FAN also notes on their website that the justification for the evictions was based on questionable land allocations.

According to a report on illegal and irregular land allocations by Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki, commonly referred to as the Ndung'u Report, about 200,000 land title deeds throughout Kenya were issued fraudulently following Kenya's independence.

The report said, "Land [after independence] was no longer allocated for development purposes but as political reward and ... 'land grabbing' became part and parcel of official grand corruption through which land meant for public purposes ... has been acquired by individuals and corporations."

The Ndung'u Report recommends amending Kenya's constitution to pave the way for the formation of a Lands Title Tribunal to facilitate the revocation and rectification of all title deeds in question.

Ben Ole Koissaba, a spokesman of the conglomerate of non-governmental organizations called Maa Civil Society Forum (MCSF), accuses the government of "implementing the recommendations [of the Ndung'u Report] piecemeal and selectively, often targeting the poor farmers, pastoralists and hunter-gatherers holding valid title deeds" in favor of rich landowners.

Ole Koissaba said that the Kenyan Ministry of Lands justified the evictions by dismissing the title deeds held by eviction victims as merely "papers." The MCSF said that accordingly, titles held by big ranchers in Nakuru, Narok, Laikipia, and Transmara districts should also be revoked.

Joseph Misoi, a former Kalenjin civil leader, said that Narok District Commissioner Farah Hassan who ordered the police actions and the Kenyan Ministry of Lands violated a court order from March barring it from evicting people from Mau forest until the matter was heard and determined in the High Court in Nairobi.

Maasai elder Taki Ole Minchil, whose community was affected by the evictions, said that the institutions that issued the questionable titles in the Mau Forest, including the Narok County Council, must be held accountable. While Ole Minchil acknowledged the importance of protecting the country's indigenous forest cover, he added that those evicted deserve compensation for land, property, and trauma, or an offer of land elsewhere.

"We were treated like criminals, enemies of the state who deserved no future even though we have title deeds for the ownership of these lands," lamented 60- year-old Kiptum Arap Koech, a victim of the evictions in Mau complex in Narok district.

According to a joint report by the Department of Resource Survey and Remote Sensing and the Kenya Forests Working Group, titled Changes in Forest Cover in Kenya's Five "Water Towers," 2000-2003, the Mau Forest ecosystem, approximately 900 square kilometers, is one of Kenya's important water sources and the largest indigenous forest. It forms the upper catchment for seven rivers that feed the sprawling Maasai Mara grasslands and regional Natron and Victoria lakes.

The report concludes that the Mau complex spanning four Kenyan districts—Kericho, Nakuru, Bomet, and Narok—is in rapid decline due to human deforestation.

Daniel Ole Ng'osila, an Ogiek from Nkareta, said he agreed that forest cover is important in maintaining pastoralists' dry-season grazing, as a source for rivers, and also to sustain Ogiek livelihoods. But he said the evictions were "despotic and tyrannical," and that the affected people had the right to be involved fully in the planning and implementation process to avoid the mayhem and destruction that ensued.

According to Kenya's The Nation, the Kenyan government recently donated Sh4.9 million (US$64,200) to schools hosting the displaced pupils, and philanthropic organizations were chipping in. The U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) contributed 3,000 books, pens, and other learning materials and the Kenyan Red Cross Society gave blankets and utensils to families camped out in the July winter cold.

It will be a long time before the full impact of the evictions fade from the minds of many pupils. Nicholas Kiptum has no kind words for those who sanctioned the operation: "Even in the Stone Age, learning institutions would have been spared. Those that ordered these atrocities are not worthy of forgiveness."

Michael Tiampati is the media liaison for the Maa Civil Society Forum (MCSF).