As Kenyan Forest Disappears, So Does Water

Kenya is thirsty. Much of its water supply comes from natural water towers — elevated forests that soak up water during the rainy season and slowly release it during the rest of the year. But Kenya's main water tower, the Mau forest, is being denuded, which has worsened droughts, threatening lives and livelihoods.

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West of Mogadishu lies Kenya, and the western part of that country is home to the Mau forest. Some of East Africa's most crucial rivers originate there. Water from one of them, the Moru River, flows to Lake Victoria and eventually to the Nile in far-away Egypt. But now, as NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports, the Mau forest is in trouble.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Bill Oleyali is waiting for a plane. He's in an area of southwestern Kenya that the people called Masai Land. And today, Masai Land appears endless, empty, and yes, a little forlorn. Oleyali is standing on a spread of dry yellow grass next to some more dry yellow grass that the people call an airstrip. And sure enough, a plane is going to come.

Mr. BILL OLEYALI (Farmer, Kenya): The whole of this place used to be forested, but you can now see the difference. You can now see that it's as dry as anything that you can imagine. In the beginning, I do not believe of global warming, but now, I'm seeing it. It's no longer, you know, a question of believing. It's actually seeing it.

THOMPKINS: Oleyali is a farmer and a self-described conservationist. He's one of many Masai and indeed many Kenyans who were worried about their forests. All forests are enchanted, and the Mau Forest is particularly so. The trees here bring the rains and capture them, feeding some of East Africa's most important rivers. And the rivers give life to everyone and everything they touch, from the Serengeti all the way up the Mau River to the Mediterranean Sea.

The Mau was once the size of Rhode Island, but since the 1990s, the forest has lost a quarter of its spread. That's because more and more people have come here to live, and people don't really live among trees, do they? No, they clear trees for houses. and churches and schools and charcoal.

Mr. OLEYALI: Global warming is a result of the destruction of the environment. It's the results of human activities. So, what we are seeing here now is the result of our own activities right here.

THOMPKINS: The plane that Oleyali is waiting for is carrying a load of passengers who may be Kenya's last bet to save this land. The task force on the Mau Forest Complex must lay the groundwork for saving the Mau's immense water treasure, without which there would be no Masai Mara Game Reserve and no reason for a million wildebeests to migrate from the Serengeti every year, no eighth wonder of the world.

More urgently, agriculture would die, and Kenya would not be able to feed itself. Already, the United Nations Environmental Program says there's not as much rain here as there used to be. The rivers are drier than they used to be. And now, only old timers like Oleyali remember how the forest used to be.

Mr. OLEYALI: You know, black with very big cedar trees. Some of them were so big that you took 10 men to hold their arms across the tree. You know, it's unbelievable.

THOMPKINS: When the charter plane finally arrives, the task force pours out. These folks have less than six months to secure the area from further encroachment and decide on the boundaries. Then task force leader Frederick Owino says the government will take it from there.

Mr. FREDERICK OWINO (Task Force Leader, Mau Forest Complex): It is at time that we will know who is in and who is out. Am I clear?

THOMPKINS: For the sake of millions, many thousands will have to leave. But try explaining that to William Chariot. He and his Kalenjin tribespeople live in the Mau Forest. About an hour's drive from that dusty little airstrip, they live on top of an escarpment that was once festooned with trees. As far as the eye can see up here, the forest has given way to cornstalks and kale. Chariot is a vegetable farmer with only one good arm, and he says he's holding onto what he's got.

Mr. WILLIAM CHARIOT: (Through translator) We bought this land ourselves and - yeah. We used our money, so we feel we have a right to live here.

THOMPKINS: They call this perch Sierra Leone. That's because some of the residents were once peacekeepers stationed in that West African nation. They pooled their earnings and bought land here. Whether the sales were legal is another story entirely. For years, people have been selling plots of land in the forest on the down low. And the deeds, though expensive, are practically worthless. Chariot is worried.

Mr. CHARIOT: (Through translator) We don't know where to go.

THOMPKINS: The government can't possibly retrench everyone. Just under 2,000 people hold legitimate title deeds in the entire Mau Forest. But more than three times that many Kalenjin are squatting up here, not to mention members of other tribes. Yes, they've been able to make beautiful farms on their end of the forest, but shards of once beautiful timber lie about like confetti.

(Soundbite of falling rain)

THOMPKINS: Wilson Mamusi(ph) also lives in the Mau Forest, about three hours away from the Kalenjin farms on the escarpment. He knows the name of every tree that should be here.

Mr. WILSON MAMUSI: (Through Translator) Are you listening closely?

THOMPKINS: Mamusi is speaking Ogiek, a language you don't often hear in Kenya or anywhere else in the world. The Ogiek tribe is one of the nation's tiniest and has lived in the Mau Forest since time immemorial. They were originally hunter-gatherers living off antelope and buffalo and an unending supply of honey. Like the Masai people, the Ogiek have opened holes in their earlobes big enough for coins to pass through, and when they turn their heads, the bottoms of their ears swing like fine gold hoops.

But otherwise, the Ogiek are wearing humdrum hats and jackets and sensible shoes. That's because on their side of the forest, it's raining. And the land is slick and thick and lush with trees. There's a river rushing by, carrying loads of freshwater. Mamusi doesn't speak much English, but he carries a cloth pouch that reads, I am blessed.

Mr. MAMUSI: (Through translator) I support the conservation effort, but mostly, they should identify me as a forest dweller because my culture and tradition lie in the forest.

THOMPKINS: But the Ogiek are no longer the hunter-gatherers they once were. They too are farming the land. It's a two-mile tramp down, down, down a ravine to reach the river. And along the way, there were fields of white flowered potato plants. There are glens crowded with more sheep than even an insomniac can count. Cows are standing in clover and eating it, too.

THOMPKINS: Mamusi says farming is a sign of the times.

Mr. MAMUSI: (Through translator) Well, yes, back many years back, we have been living using (unintelligible) or animals. But now, because of modern science, we have to look at living like other communities.

THOMPKINS: But unlike other communities living in and around the Mau Forest, the Ogiek have as much water as they need. The tribe works with conservationists to keep their part of their forest healthy. The Greenbelt Movement, headed by Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, pays them to plant trees. But the Ogiek do not have the title deeds necessary to lay claim to the land that they have known since time immemorial. They could be cast out of this Eden. Odendo Lumumba is a task force member and a major advocate for land reform.

Mr. ODENDO LUMUMBA: We seem all of us to have been tied to the land as the only source of incurring a livelihood. And therefore, you need a piece of land to be somebody.

THOMPKINS: Lumumba says that rampant inequalities in land distribution policy now dog Kenya like original sin. Kenya's political elite controls the nation's most fertile ground, and the poor are left to fuss and fight over places that should be off-limits, like the Mau Forest. Political clashes in Kenya earlier this year were in part the work of tribes killing each other for squatting rights.

Even now, people in and around the Mau Forest seem as if they would rather settle tribal scores than save the nation's water supply. A woman from the Kikuyu tribe said the other day, I'm waiting for the task force to clear the Kalenijn tribe out of the forest so I can go back to my land. Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Mau Forest, Kenya.

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