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Logging in Kenya forest feeds deadly drought

Illegal logging of Kenya's Mau Forest has exacerbated a drought that swept across East Africa, leaving millions of people in need of food aid this year.
A quarter of Kenya's Mau Forest, including this stand, has been cut down.Khalil Senosi / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

More than 200 of Ole Saloli's cows have died, ruining his children's inheritance and his safety net for old age. Now he wanders miles seeking pasture for the surviving animals, his bare feet as cracked and dry as the Kenyan earth he sleeps upon.

Saloli, who estimates he is around 80 years old, has seen many droughts. But he says they have gotten much, much worse since the devastation of the Mau Forest began.

"Mau Forest was created by God to make it rain and now people are destroying it," Saloli said bitterly as he watched his 50 remaining cows searching for forage in the dust.

The United Nations Environment Program estimates 10 million Kenyans depend on the rivers that flow out of the Mau Forest to irrigate their crops, provide electricity through hydroelectric dams, or supply water for the wild animals that draw hundreds of thousands of cash-flush tourists.

But charcoal burners, loggers and farmers are felling the forest's trees. A quarter already has been cut down, and long-simmering tensions over land, water and politics complicate the struggle to save the rest.

The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that more than 9 percent of Africa's forests were lost between 1990 and 2005, depriving the world of a giant carbon sink and wreaking havoc with local ecosystems.

Forests produce their own moist microclimate, inducing rain and protecting water in the soil from evaporation. The Mau is Kenya's biggest water catchment area and the rivers that flow from it also feed the vast savannah of the Maasai Mara as well as four other national parks.

The destruction has exacerbated a drought that swept across East Africa, leaving 23 million people in need of food aid this year, according to aid organization Oxfam. The rains finally returned last week, but the forest destruction continues to threaten the region's ecosystem.

Rivers feeding lake dry up
One result: All the rivers that feed the famous flamingo-rimmed Nakuru Lake have dried up. Only a trickle from a spring and the sewage from town are still flowing, bringing in a steady flow of plastic bags and worse.

In this Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2009 photo, the carcass of a buffalo that had died due to drought lies in front of flamingos, on the shore of lake Nakuru in Kenya. A drought has swept across East Africa, leaving 23 million people in need of food aid this year, according to aid organization Oxfam.Khalil Senosi / AP

"It's not the bodies, it's the lake," park warden Vincent Ongwae says ruefully of the overwhelming stench as he picks his way between buffalo carcasses. His boots crush flamingo bones into a delicate mosaic in the mud.

As the lake has receded, it has become too salty for the animals to drink. Those weakened by hunger, like the buffalo, become mired in the mud as they try to quench their thirst, eventually dying of exhaustion.

Ongwae has been helping pump fresh water for the animals to drink, but fears such scenes represent the park's future unless the forest is saved.

The Mau's destruction began around two decades ago under former president Daniel arap Moi, who carved out huge chunks for himself and his political supporters. Some beneficiaries subdivided the tracts, selling plots to smaller farmers.

After Moi stood down in 2003, conservationists began a campaign to save the forest. In 2005, police swept through the area, burning down homes without warning.

Farmers come and go
But in 2007, President Mwai Kibaki invited the settlers back in what they say was a flagrant attempt to win votes ahead of a closely fought presidential election. Now the government says they must go again.

"These politicians have been kicking us around like a football," complained farmer Elijah Busiene as he led his heavily burdened donkey past the remains of his former home.

Busiene's family bought title deeds 15 years ago in areas of the forest they believed they were allowed to settle in. They were burned out, invited back, and now say they won't go without compensation for the green fields of tall corn and cabbages they've planted.

Despite the destruction, the rains here are so constant that farmers like Busiene can plant year-round. It will be a struggle to find somewhere this good, and like many others his family sold all their original land to move to the Mau. Other families who live here, like the members of the honey-gathering Ogiek tribe, say they have no other home.

Kenya has said it will compensate farmers who hold genuine title deeds. But they are far outnumbered by illegal squatters and inhabitants with more complicated claims, like the Ogiek.

Politicians have polarized the debate, reviving tensions that exploded in the wake of the disputed 2007 elections. More than 1,000 people were killed after political riots were fueled by grievances over land and ethnically divisive rhetoric.

But the recent drought has united more Kenyans behind efforts to save the forest.

The government taskforce set up to save the Mau Forest said it is ready to start evictions as early as next month.

"We are holding this forest in trust for everybody," said forestry official Anthony Maina. "Having water is the bedrock of society. All industries, from electricity generation to agriculture to tourism depend on it."