African business, politics and lifestyle
Saving Kenyan forest. Is it a turning point?
After a decade of rampant destruction of the Mau forest water catchment in western Kenya, the country’s coalition government seems firmly united in trying to save the complex before more serious damage is inflicted on the economy.
U.N. officials say this is no longer simply an environmental issue but something that has huge importance for the whole country. Already two of the top three foreign exchange earners — tourism and tea — are feeling the impact of falling water levels which have also forced the postponement of a major hydro-electric project.
Prime Minister Raila Odinga describes the forest’s destruction as a national emergency. Both foreign and local officials say there is no gap between Odinga and President Mwai Kibaki on the issue.
Saving the forest will involve huge costs to resettle and compensate some of the thousands of people living illegally there and restore tree cover which produces vital supplies of water. Officials say they expect international donors to provide major financial help.
Until a few months ago, the destruction of the forest was a familiar story of land grabbing, illegal logging and the allocation of government land to try to win votes. It began in 1997 when the government of Daniel arap Moi gave large plots away in exchange for electoral support.
Then, this year, the United Nations flew Odinga and other officials over the forest to show them the extent of the destruction, shocking them into urgent action.
The government is pushing ahead despite the fact that many of the area’s MPs and voters belong to Odinga’s ODM party. Unlike the past, political considerations are being pushed to one side in the national interest. U.N. officials call this process unique for a country long blighted by the depradations of powerful and greedy politicians.
This momentum is all the more striking because Odinga and Kibaki were bitter enemies before and during a bloody political crisis in the first two months of this year when around 1,500 people died in tribally-based clashes following the president’s disputed victory in an election.
Does the Mau forest issue mark a turning point in Kenyan politics or is it a one-off. What do you think?