Kenyan police burned down the homes of some 4,000 people in an effort to stop them from squatting in a Rift Valley forest, residents said on Friday.
Settlers living in the valley’s Eburru forest near the town of Naivasha in central Kenya spent Thursday night out in the cold after police set more than 300 houses on fire in an attempt to flush them out and keep them from returning to the forest.
“We shall not stop the exercise until we get rid of all those residing in the forest as they have caused wanton destruction to a water catchment area,” Naivasha District Officer Kaunda Maikara told Reuters.
Settlers and squatters, like those in Eburru who cut down trees to make way for their farms and making charcoal, have been blamed for Kenya’s increasing deforestation and the environmental damage that it causes.
Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai earlier this month urged Kenya’s government to do more to protect and rehabilitate indigenous forests.
Last year, the government evicted between 10,000-50,000 families from the edge of the vast Mau Forest in the Rift Valley as part of a campaign it said was to save the country’s natural resources.
The squatters won a temporary reprieve last month after the government abruptly halted the eviction following protests from local leaders.
“We are ready to die here and we won’t shift unless we are shown alternative land where we can settle,” forest resident Charles Mbuthia said, adding that several people were injured in the exercise.
The government has defended the evictions as righting past wrongs of land illegally apportioned or sold during former president Daniel arap Moi’s 24-year reign.