Nairobi. About 50 kilometres north in Maasai Mau lies Kiptunga forest. We arrive here on the fourth day of our tour of the Mau complex after driving through the thick-canopy Transmara block, Kiptagich Tea Estate and the Olenguruone area of Kuresoi South constituency in Nakuru County.
It is at the end of Kiptunga that we arrive at Enapuyapui, the source of the main tributary of the Mara, 300 metres off the Olenguruone-Njoro road. Here, a cold breeze and the singing of birds nearby complete the picture of paradise. But this sacred place now lies desolate, not a tree to cover one of the most vulnerable water catchments that gives life to millions of people and animals in this part of Africa.
It is here that Amalo, one of the two main tributaries of the Mara, begins its journey to Lake Victoria before its waters are picked by the mighty Nile for its 4,000-odd kilometre voyage into the Mediterranean Sea.
But barely 500 metres from the swamp where River Mara bubbles out of the bowels of the earth, exotic tree stumps jut out of the ground as if to prick the conscience of the nation.
Eucalyptus, pine, cypress and cedar ring the grass-and-reed-covered swamp. How commercial loggers were given licences to farm exotic trees at the critical catchment area has, for years troubled environmental activists.
It offers some comfort that the Ewaso Ng’iro South Development Authority is erecting a fence around the swamp to ward off cows that have been grazing right up to the critical source.
But as we leave Kiptunga Forest Station and drive further north into what was once Marioshoni forest, the pine and eucalyptus, intercropped with potatoes and peas, give way to fully-fledged farms where maize fields compete with springs that form the catchment of most of the rivers east of the Mau — Molo, Perkerra, Njoro, Makalia, Naishi, Nderit and Kerio, which feed lakes Baringo, Nakuru, and Bogoria.
Here settlers draw water directly from the catchment with some piping it out even as siltation from the farms threatens to choke the springs. The stated reason for excising Marioshoni was settling the Ogiek, a forest-dwelling community, that has been dispossessed by the destruction of Mau. But the agitation for the excision of the forest also coincided with the return of multi-partyism in the 1990s. Kanu insiders at the time told the Nation that President Daniel arap Moi needed a constituency out of Molo to secure a Kanu seat in a region dominated by the opposition.
To meet the number of votes required to form a constituency, the gerrymandering went deep into Mau, opening up the forest for a free-for-all with big commercial loggers taking advantage.
Ahead of the 1997 polls, Kuresoi was carved out of Molo and Kanu’s James Koskei was elected. This was also the beginning of large-scale excision of the forestland which would accelerate in 2001.
“Our own audit has unearthed 700 individuals who are neither members of the Ogiek community nor needy. They are all either senior politicians or civil servants,” Mr Joseph Towett, the chairman of the Ogiek Council of Elders, said.
His account agrees with the shocking revelation of the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Illegal/Irregular Allocation of Public Land, popularly known as the Ndung’u Commission after the lawyer who chaired it.
The report, released in 2004, found that the primary beneficiaries of the allocations were prominent individuals and companies in the Moi government with only a small number of the Ogiek benefiting.
A United Nations Environment Programme report into land in the Mau names former civil servants and politicians Zakayo Cheruiyot, Sammy Mwaita, Franklin Bett and Joshua Kulei as among the major beneficiaries. Former Baringo Kanu official Hosea Kiplagat and Senator Gideon Moi were also listed.
At Marioshoni, 18 firms were allocated portions ranging from four to eight hectares each in 1998 alone.
The situation is the same in nearby Logman, Bararket, Makutano, Soget and Kuresoi forests, where human settlement, illegal logging and charcoal burning went on unabated.
Another task force commissioned by former Prime Minister Raila Odinga in 2009 found that most of the prominent personalities got 20 hectares each, way above the five recommended as the standard size in settlement schemes. Some, were allocated several pieces.
At the end of the free-for-all, more than 60,000 hectares of forest cover had been destroyed and turned into farmland and Marioshoni became a grotesque wasteland where you can drive for hundreds of metres without seeing a tree.
In 2010, the elder Moi owned up to having a stake in Kiptagich Tea Factory in Mau forest. He insisted, however, that the land stands on the edge of the Mau forest and not inside the water tower. He said that the Narok County Council allocated him the property.
“We gave Moi Kiptagich, an area west of Olenguruone, on the push of Maasai leaders such as (William) ole Ntimama, (Justus) ole Tipis and (Stanley) Oloitiptip,” Mr Shadrack Rotiken, a one-time chairman of the defunct Narok County Council — which held Maasai Mau Forest in trust of the community — told the Nation.
The former councillor for Olokurto ward was also a member of the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Mau. He said the land was meant to act as a buffer to prevent encroachment.
“He (Moi) also never moved the boundary a bit,” Mr Rotiken adds.
His statement, however, is in sharp contrast to that of Mr Joseph ole Karia, his contemporary both at the council and also at the Raila task force. Mr Karia insisted that Kiptagich was increased to 4,000 acres from the original 1,500.
Mr Towett, the Ogiek leader, said the government can recover much more land by focusing on the big beneficiaries instead of small scale invaders.
There has been agitation in the past to repossess all the Mau land, including Kiptagich Tea Estate, and turn the factory into a “tree nursery or a demonstration centre in public interest.”
While forest restoration attention is presently turned on Maasai Mau, one cannot help but feel the urgency to safeguard the critical areas of the other parts of the complex whose ecological and economic value is too important to be ignored.
“Some people have gone beyond the cutline. Today it is very difficult even for KFS to man the boundaries,” said Mr George Natembeya, the Rift Valley Regional Commissioner, of the destruction of Kiptunga and Marioshoni forests.
Yet as the government dithers on the protection of this key resource, rivers emanating from Mau show increasing distress. One such river is the Ewaso Ng’iro, which courses through the Narok wheat belt and an irrigated horticultural hub further south on its way to Lake Natron where flamingoes breed.
In Ewaso Ng’iro town the once mighty river by the same name is now but a muddy trickle that can hardly sustain aquatic life.