The Mau Forest: A Global Concern
Interview with Christian Lambrechts in Nairobi – Oct. 22, 2009
Christian Lambrechts: UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme)
Mau Forest Task Force
Alison Jones: NWNL, Founding Director
Alison Fast: Expedition Videographer
The Mau Forest Task Force
NWNL: Christian, we’ve heard great praise about your work leading the Mau Forest Task Force. Let’s start with why this Task Force was formed?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: Over the last two decades the Mau Forest Complex, at 400,000 hectares (almost 1,000 acres) has lost 25% of its forest cover. That loss represents 108,000 hectares (270,000 acres). This destruction of the forest has had a major consequence on resources and an alarming impact on community activities in all areas surrounding the Mau Forest Complex. Alarmed by the situation in the Mau Forest Complex, the government decided to rehabilitate the Mau Forest Complex by establishing the Mau Task Force.
NWNL: How is this Task Force structured?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: This multi-stakeholder Task Force includes affected communities as the private sector, international NGOs, national NGOs – and, of course, government Ministries of Forests, Natural Resource Conservation and Good Management. This Task Force is based on participation, consensus, fact and science.
NWNL: How do those four principles impact the Mau Task Force?
– The first principle (participation) means affected communities, NGOs and government are all a part of the Task Force.
– The second principle (consensus) requires that the entire Task Force must agree on all recommendations and decisions.
– The third principle (fact) is the basis of all recommendations and decisions. The Task Force has collected as much information as possible in 8 months, based on scientific evidence and facts from government officials. Over 200 kilos [440 lbs.] of government reports have been fully analyzed and put in a database to better interpret the situation.
– The fourth principle (science) required 3 assessment studies by over 20 experts from universities and other private sectors in the field of forest hydrology and bio-diversity.
NWNL: It seems that a broad-based recognition that the Mau Forest issue is serious has led to creating the Mau Task Force.
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: Yes, the government set up this Task Force in light of the outcry by communities and government ministries involved in forest conservation.
NWNL: Why do you think this Task Force can make a difference?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: Unlike many Task Force reports, the Cabinet, Head of State and Ministers adopted the report of the Mau Task Force on July 30 this year. Parliament adopted it on September 15, just two weeks ago.
NWNL: Many say the Kenyan government is a lot of words, but no action. Will there be action in the Mau?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: In a very positive development, the government began implementing the report as soon as the Cabinet and Parliament adopted it. The Prime Minister himself is coordinating implementation of the entire Task Force Report.
Plans to Restore the Forest
NWNL: What is the next focus of The Mau Task Force?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: We are already beginning to implement the report. We’re repossessing some of the forest areas excised as gifts to the people, and getting them back into the Forest Estates of the Mau.
NWNL: What will happen to the people whose land you take back? The traditional, forest-dwelling Ogiek people have asked, “Where do we go?” And how will forest residents who are not indigenous and have no title to their land be treated?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: There are different categories of people now in the Mau. There are Ogieks who have been living in the Mau for centuries and have indigenous title to the land in the Mau. And there are people who came into the Mau the last two decades - some with no documents and some with a letter from the government or a title deed they might have acquired over the last two years.
NWNL: The Ogieks we talked to want a reserve established for them like the Maasai and other tribes have. They said reserves that other tribes regained yield great income.
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: It may not go that way – not fully. It is clear the Ogiek have an indigenous right to the land. At the same time, their lifestyle has changed with the times. They now have livestock and grow crops, like maize. Those activities are not compatible with forest conservation. So the Task Force recommends that they can live near but outside the forest, practice the remnants of their traditional lifestyle, and develop new livelihoods.
When settled on land near the forest, the Ogieks will be able to practice their new life of growing maize or raising livestock. Within their own association, they can enjoy specific forest activities based on an agreement with the government. We have to make sure the Mau Forest Complex is a secure asset – not only for the Ogiek, but also for the entire nation.
NWNL: What about those with or without deeds who are not Ogieks?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: Those without titles or documentation on why they are occupying a specific piece of forestland will be removed from the forest. Their removal will be done in a humane manner with livelihood supports.
NWNL: Will they receive compensation?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: No. If we do that, then we’ll have all of Nairobi moving into the forest, becoming established, and leaving us with no recourse. If their documents are not valid or legal, they will be treated like illegal squatters.
However those with title deeds or any other official documents will be addressed on a case-to-case basis, to ascertain whether their documents are valid and legal or whether they are fake. If their documents are valid and legal, they will be resettled or compensated.
Politics of Land Use
NWNL: What are the political ramifications of this removal process?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: There may be concern within Kenya’s political world about how we implement the Mau Task Force. We will work with all local members of Parliament to ensure we provide the best means of restoring the Mau Forest Complex.
NWNL: Are your implementation rules hard and fast? Or is there leeway in certain situations?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: There is room for interpretation in the implementation of the Mau Task Force. A new Internal Steering Committee will secure consensus at the highest level. Its seven ministers will be responsible for issues related to the Mau Forest. This will create platforms for reaching political consensus on implementing recommendations.
NWNL: Does the government see this Task Force as Kenya making progress in facing its dire conservation issues?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: The Mau Forest Complex is a unique case here in Kenya. It is the first time a conservation issue – but even more than that, an issue of sustainable development – has moved to the center of a government agenda. The Prime Minister is leading the entire process. He has said on TV that he will go forward with this even if it costs him political mileage. This great leadership is setting sustainable development as one of the very large goals of this country.
NWNL: Does this major step transcend Kenya’s cultural differences?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: It’s amazing. Despite all the political intrigues hiding here in the country – and there are quite a few – we have support from the Prime Minister and even the Heads of States. Those who cry against the process are fewer and fewer. They are mentioned in the Mau Task Force report and are deliberately excluded from the process. We wonder if they were vocal out of concern for the communities – or to protect their interests and shield themselves?
NWNL: We talked about the Task Force addressing three types of local populations, but there’s a fourth group: those politicians who gave themselves large tracts of land for large estates. What will happen to them?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: Large tracts of land in the Mau have been given to some former government officials, whether Heads of States or high-level officials. Those lands are part of what we consider protected forest and those lands would remain that way.
NWNL: Will those owners have to leave so their land can revert to forest?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: The ownership of lands still within the protected Mau Forest Complex has to revert back to government, since the land was never removed from its ownership. Now, there might be several exceptions. If that land is perceived as a “development asset” with minimum forest involvement, the land would return to the government, which would pay rent to the occupants. The new Forest Act of 2005 provides these concession mechanisms.
Tea and Tree Plantations
NWNL: What position does the Task Force take on tea forests and tea estates? Some are within the forests and some provide valuable buffer zones. They help stop erosion and fend off access to fuel wood collectors in the forest.
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: Those “tea belts” were developed in the mid-‘80s by one side wanting to encourage some economic activity, and another side wanting a buffer zone between the settlements and the forest.
When you flew over the Mau Forest Complex you saw those boundaries still exist. The tea belts have helped secure the boundaries. But quite a few hectares of forest have been converted into tea. Most likely tea farms will remain, because with them there is very little illegal cutting down trees or making charcoal in forest bordering the tea estates.
NWNL: What about plantations formerly of cedar and now eucalyptus?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: In the past, a large amount of the Mau Forest Complex was under commission for plantations, mostly of exquisite tree species. In Eastern Mau a few were planted with indigenous cedar. All plantations in Southern Mau were part of the 2001 excisions, and thus are no longer in protected forest area. The only remaining forest plantations are in Northern Mau.
Plantations that are steeply sloped or are in critical catchment areas will be converted back into indigenous forest. Other plantations will remain because Kenya still needs timber.
NWNL: Sawmill owners near Elburgon talked of a government monopoly.
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: The Task Force has looked at this process. There are four companies with licenses. We have to ensure government laws for open, transparent tendering are carried out during licensing or acquisitioning commercial forest plantations. We are concerned that smaller timber mills will have no access to the forest resources.
NWNL: Will small saw mills be given access to the forest?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: We are looking for the most appropriate companies to license, whether small or large. We have to make sure that those in the Mau have complied with various conditions to be laid down within the framework of a licensing process.
NWNL: Folks we talked with discussed two neighboring mills that had closed down. Those owners said, “We have to drive 40 kilometers to get trees. There are just not enough trees for us. We have no access to the forest. We don’t know what we’re going to do.”
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: Well, we’re going to change the system. In the past, the government established forest plantations; and banks, supporting this tradition of awarding forest plantations in the Mau, gave out loans. Now private sectors do the investments. The government shall no longer be involved in establishing forest plantations. The Kenya government should just have the role of regulating or providing legal framework for those plantations and implementation of concession agreements.
Climate Change & Water Resources
NWNL: You are setting a global precedent just as representatives to COP-15* go to Copenhagen to discuss global warming mitigation on a macro-level. How does Kenya’s proposal for the Mau Forest fit in their agenda? And how might Kenya benefit from COP-15?
* International Convention of Parties regarding Climate Change
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: The resolution of the Kenyan government to address the crisis in the Mau Forest Complex is a good example of leadership in facing climate change. Climate change is upon us, and will continue for quite a few decades to come. In resolving problems in the Mau, we address the issue of mitigation, and invest in adaptation.
One of the best ways to mitigate the impacts of climate change is to increase the health of our ecosystems. It’s critical we make sure that natural-ecosystem assets and infrastructure can absorb impacts of climate change. One way is to boost our forest ecosystem and restore the Mau Forest Complex to the state it was two decades ago.
NWNL: What kind of international support does Kenya need to implement this program? I’ve heard Kenya is asking for international help from European nations, the United States, and other nations in the Nile Basin (since the Mau Forest drains to the Mara River and Lake Victoria, the source of the White Nile). Who will be there lobbying for Kenya’s support?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: It’s likely that Mau Forest Task Force technical advisors will be there – probably the Head of the Climate Change and the Environmental Office of the Prime Minister, also one of our technical advisors.
NWNL: What international and regional support do you need?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: Regionally, support to restore the Mau Forest Complex may best be based on the simple principle of “payment for ecosystem services.” Not will only Kenya and Kenyans benefit from a healthier Mau Forest Complex, but also neighboring countries in the Nile River Basin. So we expect economic support from those countries to plug into the Mau ecosystem because they benefit from the Mau.
Internationally, the emission of greenhouse gases and biodiversity are transboundary issues for all nations, within which of course there are separate jurisdictional territories.
So we expect support from many nations – at the regional and international levels. Some nations and partners have already expressed a major interest. We are now developing a project with USAID and other organizations.
The Mara River Basin & Its Tourism
NWNL: The Mara River may not be the great Nile – the longest river in the world – but how important a river is it? How many people rely upon it? What level of significance and recognition does the Kenya Government give to the biodiversity within the Mara River Basin?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: Compared to the Mississippi or the Nile, all rivers in this country are very small.
NWNL: But perhaps the importance of the Mara River is greater than its size?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: The Mara River is one of the 12 main rivers flowing from the Mau. Being only a few hundred kilometers long, none are major rivers. But they are critical for all the ecosystems they cross. They are lifelines for natural habitats and the populations that depend upon those rivers. That is particularly true in the dry season, as our water resources here only come from rivers and a scattered few springs.
NWNL: How do you define the value of the greater Mau Forest ecosystem?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: Most likely 30,000 families are currently living in the Mau Forest. With about five people per family, that represents 150,000 people. But the number of people dependent upon the water resources from that ecosystem has to be counted in millions.
We are waiting for results of a census taken just a few weeks ago. Current information dates back to 1999, so it is outdated. But clearly there must be at least 5 to 7 million people directly dependent upon the water flowing out from the Mau. Even Nairobi is dependent upon the Mau because whatever happens there will impact electricity here.
So there is a major disproportion between those who currently reside and live in the Mau Forest Complex (150,000 people maximum) and the millions of people depending on water flowing from this forest.
NWNL: How do you define the value of the Mara River in particular?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: We have quite a number of districts that are crossed by the Mara River. It is the main lifeline for the entire Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem, a habitat for one of the largest wildlife migrations. It roams from Tanzania northwards to Kenya and back in a circular manner, following the changing rhythms of rainfall in the area.
The Mara River, while a rather small river, is critical to Kenya’s economy. It is the lifeline for one of the world’s most incredible wildlife ecosystems. As such, the Mara River Basin is one of the most visited areas of Kenya. That river sustains Kenya’s tourism, one of the key economic sectors in this nation.
Without the Mara, Kenyan tourism would be tremendously affected. Thus, all Kenyans, to some extent, are dependent upon the Mara because tourism impacts the economy, which impacts our day-to-day life.
Support for Sustainable Development
NWNL: Christian, what will most help raise awareness of values received from the Mau Forest and its rivers, and ecosystem support needed from other regions and nations?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: Kenya has talked about sustainable development, but not understood it. Management of the Mau Ecosystem has focused on development, but never considered its physical boundaries. And now we see the consequences. Today, for the first time, Kenya finally realizes at a national level what sustainable development means.
Economic development is no longer possible in the Mau region. So we have to go backwards and assess what sustainable development means in Kenya. We see that the forest ecosystem can and is impacting the economy. Thus, the Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, has picked up this matter.
A Prime Minister has no business in forestry. We have a Minister for Forestry and Wetlands, and it’s his business to resolve the Mau Forest Complex issues. But because the Mau Forest Complex has become a development issue that compromises land, people, politics, forestry, and water resources, the issue belongs to the Minister of Community and Government, which is the Prime Minister. I think this is quite a unique case.
NWNL: It is exciting to see awareness and action on this level.
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: Yes, an issue such as the Mau Forest Complex being addressed at the level of the Prime Minister is unprecedented in Kenya.
NWNL: You say 20–25% percent of the Mau will be restored soon – perhaps by the time of COP-15. Is that enough to relieve the pressures on the Mau Forest as a watershed?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: It will. The impact can be felt quite fast. But not always for the reason you might believe. By first removing the people from the forest, you remove the water obstruction and get better flow in the rivers. The next impact will be to reduce compaction of the soil. That will enable water percolation and create critical impact on the aquifer, the springs and river flow in dry seasons. The heart of the crisis of the Mau Forest is an aquifer crisis. It’s an issue of the aquifer going down.
NWNL: Will there be fenced areas so springs, rivers and the aquifer can replenish themselves?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: No. Fencing is a very delicate issue. On one side it’s an extremely expensive intervention for securing ecosystems. On the other side, in many cases, it’s a barrier for indigenous communities. We might find cases where fencing could be the most appropriate intervention if accepted by the people living adjacent to the forest. Those are usually areas where there is human wildlife-conflict. Thus those people would see the fence as being on their side because it prevents wildlife – in particular elephants – from entering their fields to devour their crops.
Last December we met with experts from protected areas, forest reserves, and private conservancies to discuss how to secure boundaries in the broad sense. That included putting up a wall or a fence and flying above a boundary once every two months. The advice from those experts with 20 years of hands-on experience is that you can only fence if it benefits the communities. If you fence against the communities, the resistance will be tremendous. That kind of resistance would require monitoring the fence all the time since people would be tempted to vandalize the fence.
The Future Mau Forest
NWNL: Yes, fences can be quickly ruined and then that cost is wasted. Whether or not there are fences, per the goal of the Mau Forest Task Force, what percentage of people who live there now will be able to remain?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: There is no way the forest will be fully vacated. We will know how much of its lands must be recovered from human settlement when we see our studies on specific catchment areas. We’ll use the Kenya Land Commission Report of 1953 to understand each area. There will be unique cases where there is clear documentation and so the forest will be their land forever.
NWNL: So it’s section by section, as to a specific percentage of people who will remain in the Mau Forest today?
CHRISTIAN LAMBRECHTS: We’re dealing with many different types of settlers. We deal with people like the Ogieks who have always lived there. We deal with people who have interacted with the forest for a long time. We deal with new immigrants into the area. We deal with VIPs and former Administration officials who set aside land for themselves and their cronies.
We deal with forest allocated for a school, but which schools area can have football fields? We must deal with so many cases in the Mau on a case-to-case basis. We must understand what history was behind a settlement, school, or facility being established in the Forest. Only on that kind of basis can a final decision be made. The Mau Task Force Report provides the guidelines; not the specifics. The specifics are dealt with on a case-to-case basis, guided by the Report of the Task Force.
NWNL: Christian, thank you for your dedication to this task and for your time clarifying the many complex issues. You have presented many answers that have obviously been carefully thought out and considered from many angles by the Mau Forest Task Force.
[Posted by NWNL on January 21, 2018. — Transcription edited and condensed for clarity by Alison M. Jones, NWNL Director. Our Interview Guidelines describe the NWNL protocol for editing raw transcripts.]
All images © Alison M. Jones. All rights reserved.