‘The higher the monkey go, the more backside he show’ Papua Guinean Proverb
Two months ago, While presiding over a ground breaking ceremony to initiate a Japanese funded water project in water scarce Narok, the Deputy President of the Republic of Kenya, Honorable Ruto, made his ‘eco-logical’ move in the game of political chess. In this case, the chessboard is the Mau Forest, East Africas largest forest ecosystem and Kenyas most important catchment area. This living and vitally significant life sustaining ecosystem and its brutish life of being grabbed, gazetted, politicised, mystified, deforested and reforested is a reflection of the Darwinian nature of Kenyan politics. Kenyan politics is far from subtle in the way it suffocates the life out of the living and conceptual advocates and spaces that seek a deeper more meaningful connection with each other and the earth. It is never ending game of shadows and illusions, where one can’t see the forest from the trees.
The Deputy Presidents first move was to make three swift deft moves in one. He seamlessly did a ‘180’ on his 2007 dalliance with the Mau Forest, when he went head to head with the then PM of Kenya Hon. Raila Odinga, adamantly opposing his bid to conserve Kenya most vital water tower. With his trademark charisma and flair, the tenacious PM, stated emphatically that if he failed to restore the Mau he would cede his political office and sell mandazis (East African donuts) in kibera (Kenyas largest slum).
The PM conservation efforts would set in motion a series of evictions, which was aimed at culminating in the forceful removal of all small, medium and large scale land owners within the Mau Forest. However, these landowners aptly named the ‘small and the big fish’ by the PM in his colourful use of language, were the DPs voting bloc. In other words, the DP and the vast majority of the landowners both big and small, share the same ethnic background. In the recent general elections of 2013, Mr. Odingas stand on evictions cost him this voting bloc, while Mr. Ruto rode on the shoulders of the same voting bloc to become the Deputy President.
The DP may seem to be relegating himself to the same political fate as Mr. Odinga by demanding the removal of small scale landowners or squatters from the forest, further asserting that ‘the forest must be conserved for posterity’. However, a closer look reveals that he is in effect making a powerful alliance with the arguably the most powerful piece on this chess board. He alludes to this when the DP spoke of planting tea rather than trees once the peasants have left. In west and southwest Mau, the largest landowner in this forest ecosystem owns the expansive Kiptagich tea estates which are twice the size of the island of Mauritius. This landowner, the kingmaker in this region, is the retired second president of Kenya, who hails from the same ethnic community as the DP. In other words, these tea estates would be further expanded to the eastern side of the forest, with a significant work force from the same ethnic community following suit. This work force would create a powerful voting bloc for the DP.
Photo courtesy of Nation Newspapers
Working with powerful landowners within the Mau to ‘restore’ the Mau Forest isn’t entirely new. In 2010, Mr. Odinga formed a committee that would oversee the completion of phase three and four of the Mau restoration process. Phase three and four was the removal of medium and large scale landowners from the Mau. Mr. Odinga then appointed Mr. Gideon Moi, the son of the owner of the Kiptagich estates to oversee this restoration process, creating a formidable move on the political chessboard but an untenable conservation scenario. These strategic alliances open a Pandora’s box of political possibilities setting in motion a sequence of what seems like well-rehearsed events.
The DPs philosophical stance on the Mau Forest could be the most important move on the chess board. In this context, the DP is arguably setting himself up for a dramatic endgame by recreating the ‘romantic’ dysfunctional relationship between political campaigns and donor funding. Let me explain, between 2009 and 2012, the PM mandated but now defunct Mau Forest Restoration Interim Coordinating Secretariat (ICS) managed to collect a nifty KES 971 million in donor funding from various sources such as the Spanish government, UNEP, USAID and EU. There isn’t any compelling evidence to show how exactly these resources were used. For instance, in 2010, the US government launched the KES 500m Pro Mara program in collaboration with the ICS. The initiative was intended to restore the catchment area of the crucial but now drying Mara river, restore the forest rich biology, help manage natural resources and improve local livelihoods. The Mara river is the lifeline for the Maasai Mara and Serengeti Game Reserves, thus vital to the regions multi-billion dollar tourist industry.
The high profile one day 20,000 seedling planting campaign in 2010, at Kiptunga, the catchment area of the Mara river in Eastern Mau, epitomised the tireless work of Mr. Odingas Mau Forest restoration efforts and the extent to which the Pro Mara funds were used to restore the Mara river . Invariably, despite this big splash, the project ground to a halt two years later due to inadequate funding and most significantly , without bearing any fruit. It comes with little surprise that the Mara river has been drying over the last three years. The ‘Mara Day’ held September this year in Narok reiterates this point. The high profile event hosted by adversarial dignitaries, the Deputy President and his namesake, the Governor for Bomet Mr. Ruto reinforced the need to restore the Mau and conserve the Mara river. With the Ruto’s locking horns of over the Mau, their cacophonous political sideshow and arm-wrestling , was an example of how two powerful pieces on the chess board are fixated on setting themselves up for a dramatic endgame, rather than conserve East Africas most important water tower.
As a result of shambolic political strategy around the conservation of the Mau, a similar but vastly different fate awaited one of Kenyas iconic tourist destinations, Lake Nakuru, which is a satellite town of the Mau Forest. Lake Nakuru is fed by rivers emanating from the Eastern Mau Forest. Once a spectacular vista of thousands and sometimes millions flamingos is now a closed chapter in the lakes illustrious history. The flamingos have migrated from the lake due to dramatic ecological changes in the recent years. Despite Nakuru town suffering from acute water shortages, the last two years has seen a sharp rise in the Lakes water levels. This rise, caused by the escalating levels of siltation from the surrounding Mau escarpment, has created a flood basin thus destabilising the lakes ecosystem and the local tourism industry. This flooding, coupled with industrial waste pollution from the nearby Nakuru town into the lake, has hindered the survival of amongst other organisms, cyanobacteria or blue green algae on which the flamingos thrive. As a result, lake Nakuru is another example of cantankerous ambitious short term political strategy at the expense of a nations Heritage. Similarly, the inception of a Japanese funded water project in Narok by the DP, reminds us of the devastating of effects of Mau Forest deforestation to another satellite town of Eastern Mau. Narok town was until 2011 the richest town in Kenya due to Masai mara gate fees, however, it has suffered from acute water shortages for decades.
In Kenyas political landscape, the Rutos wield tremendous power over their constituents, they are viciously territorial and one would tread carefully in either of their territories or face a thunderous response. Similarly, alpha-male Olive Baboons resort to certain behaviours when repelling a threat from another male baboon. They characteristically open their mouths widely in a tension yawn to reveal a formidable set of canine teeth as a warning. One can imagine the futile attempt of two male baboons sitting across from each other over a game of chess, the tension is palpable with the quick flashes of teeth and antagonistic eye brow raising. The chess board is flung into the air as the subtle game of chess is abandoned for an endless and sometimes bloody contest of male dominance. As we anxiously wait to find who has the biggest set of canines in this Mau forest issue, we are reassured that there are male and female baboons in the troop are forming long term bonds to reinforce the cycle of life in the ecosystem.