NAKURU, Kenya -- The wooded ridge rising to the west of this bustling provincial capital is the home of one of Kenya's greatest natural resources and one of Africa's biggest environmental crises.
The Mau Forest Complex encompasses almost 1 million acres of wilderness, interspersed with small farms and sprawling tea plantations. The watershed feeds 12 rivers and hydroelectric dams downstream and replenishes some of Africa's most famous lakes and wildlife preserves, including the Serengeti in Tanzania.
Kenya can ill afford to lose the Mau, but that is what's happening. A legacy of corruption, cronyism and inept management threatens to derail a fresh government effort to replant the forests and protect the water table.
In the nearly 50 years since Kenya won its independence from Great Britain, huge swaths of the Mau have been cleared to expand the tea plantations and make way for new ones on land handed over to a chosen elite. Add to this roughly 600,000 settlers staking their own claims to the Mau, most illegally.
They continue to tear down forests for cropland today. Activists warn of illegal logging activities on government lands, carried out under cover of darkness as officials willfully look the other way. It is the same in other forested parts of the country, notably the Aberdare Range and around Mount Kenya.
The encroachments have reduced Kenya's forest cover from 12 percent to 1.2 percent today, according to the United Nations. Rivers and lakes have shrunk, and last year's record drought led to a rationing of power and water. Government officials are eager to reverse the trend and rehabilitate the Mau and Kenya's four other highland "water towers."
"We cannot let the rivers that feed Lake Victoria, Lake Nakuru, Lake Naivasha and Lake Turkana die," Deputy Prime Minister Musalia Mudavadi declared at a recent U.N. water conference here. "Restoring the Mau complex is therefore a matter of protecting humanity."
Late last year, Prime Minister Raila Odinga launched a special commission tasked with restoring the Mau. Staffed with public- and private-sector officials, that team must find a way to relocate illegal settlers and replant trees in their wake. Powerful political and economic interests and an inert bureaucratic machine stand in the way.
Something must be done, and soon. Land degradation costs Kenya about $390 million annually -- about 3 percent of gross domestic product, according to the government.
"It has become one of the top political issues in Kenyan society, the Mau Forest," said United Nations Environmental Programme Executive Director Achim Steiner.
Big ambitions, major hurdles
The Mau has lost about 490,000 acres during the past 15 years, according to Odinga, including more than 61,000 acres from government-backed excisions in 2001. Satellite data show that the complex's southwestern Maasai Mau area lost about a third of its tree cover between 1986 and 2003; the eastern Mau area has lost almost half of its tree cover since 1973.
Kenyan authorities say they aim to plant more than 7.6 billion trees by 2030, mostly in the Mau complex. That would boost Kenya's forest cover to 10 percent, effectively reversing 50 years of forest loss in less than two decades.
From July to October of last year, the Kenya Forest Service replanted almost 3,500 acres of the Mau, according to the prime minister's task force, dubbed the Interim Coordinating Secretariat (ICS). In December, KFS officials completed the repossession of about 47,000 acres in the South Western Mau Forest Reserve and removed about 1,700 families who lacked title deeds. By March, the secretariat was wrapping up the repossession of more than 11,000 acres of the eastern Mau complex.
Government-led replanting efforts have slowed considerably in recent months, however.
At a March meeting of the secretariat in Nairobi, all that was achieved was a doubling of its members. Frederick Oweno, an adviser to the secretariat and managing director at Forest Resources International, said the move was necessary even though it complicates the effort further.
"We don't want a situation where some major stakeholders will feel that they have been left out of this," Oweno explained.
The Kenya Forest Service (KFS), which manages 70 percent of the Mau, is seen by critics as one of the chief impediments to progress.
During the March gathering, KFS asked that all further work be delayed by one year. That proposal was rejected, but little government-led replanting has occurred since.
The project's current phase entails the recovery of titled land in the 113,000-acre Maasai Mau section of the forest complex. About 43 percent of the area had been allocated to individuals and companies, mainly through illegal means, during the past decade.
KFS and its partners aim to replant and rehabilitate about 12,300 acres during the long rains, which typically continue through the end of this month. Officials are also conducting a census of settlers in the Maasai Mau and demarcating its boundary, but less than 75 acres had been replanted through the first half of May, said Christian Lambrechts, a UNEP analyst and technical adviser to the Mau secretariat.
"We can only plant trees once a forest is vacated," Lambrechts explained.
John Spears, former Kenya resident and consultant to the World Bank, said the Mau's current problems are rooted in Kenya's suspect political history.
"The Mau is politically difficult because some politicians allowed small farmers to encroach into the Mau," Spears explained. "Some of them started farming and got titles. How they got it, God knows."
Tree harvesting and tea planting began with the British but continued under the new guard.
Family and friends of former Kenyan Presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi were given title to government lands to expand tea operations. They brought with them tens of thousands of farmers who were bribed with offers of small plots in exchange for support at election times, making it even more difficult for later administrations to remove tea barons from their illegally gotten land.
"People have destroyed the forest for two reasons -- one, for commercial purposes, and two, for individual livelihood," ICS Chairman Hassan Noor Hassan said. "Many Kenyans want to see the forest replanted with trees again."
But Kenyans are also wary of political deals cut to get farmers to return their land. Rumors abound that wealthy landowners will simply be bought off to hand in titles. One form of protest is a popular car bumper sticker created by the local office of Transparency International. The sticker's message: "Compensate illegal Mau land tycoons? Not with my money!"
At the March ICS meeting, Essau Omello, deputy director for conservation at the Kenya Forest Service, insisted that his agency was committed to restoring the Mau quickly and fairly, despite his request to postpone activity. Omello said his agency was working with the Kenya Tourist Board to organize a replanting drive in the Maasai Mau region.
"We want to open up the Mau for tourism," Omello explained.
KFS critics charge that agency officials have been skipping subsequent meetings of the secretariat or have otherwise been made unavailable.
Of greatest concern, critics say, is a draft memorandum of understanding KFS distributed recently. The MOU must be signed by any parties interested in organizing replanting drives, but the terms are controversial.
The forest agency mandates that all money for the effort go through a steering committee it controls. KFS also wants its officials to be consulted for technical advice before any project is approved.
Some Mau advocates object, saying that the agency has little to no expertise in forest restoration. They also charge that the structure is ripe for abuse, and as a consequence, private-sector donors have been slow to come forward.
"We have advised potential donors not to put any money in until they are satisfied how and by whom it will be used," said Richard Muir, an official active in commercial forestry on private lands and chairman of the group Friends of the Mau Watershed. "That stage has not been reached."
Omello and other Kenyan government officials did not return requests for comment regarding charges of delays, absences, unfavorable terms in the MOU and other red tape.
Though the larger effort appears troubled, there are smaller signs of momentum.
In March, President Mwai Kibaki commissioned a 250-mile electric fence, built around Aberdare National Park at a cost of about $9.6 million. The goal of the fence is to reduce illegal logging, encroachments and wildlife poaching in the forest, which supplies water to 30 percent of Kenya's population.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Odinga announced that foreign aid donors had pledged $10 million to restore the Mau. The U.S. Agency for International Development committed the lion's share -- $7 million to a replanting drive aimed at restoring the Mara River's water catchments. The Kenyan government is seeking a total of $99 million.
Private-sector organizations hoping to burnish their green credentials are also getting into the tree-planting business.
Equity Bank Ltd., East African Breweries Ltd., Nation Media Group and other partners have committed about $640,000 to plant trees amid the Maasai Mau. They are keen to adopt almost 20,000 acres of the Eburru Forest near Lake Naivasha, Lambrechts said.
Separately, private entrepreneurs recently gained KFS permission to move ahead with an experimental biomass project using fast-growing bamboo as the fuel source. The 1,200-acre pilot project also won't be happening in the Mau, but in the Aberdares.
Led by a group called the Bamboo Trading Co., the project aims to demonstrate how replanting cleared areas with bamboo could restore watersheds in the Mau and elsewhere while providing valuable fuel wood for generating electricity, to either feed the national grid or to power local agriculture operations.
The native bamboo takes three to four months to reach full height and matures into hardwood in only three years, potentially replenishing much of the river catchments in a very short time. Liam O'Meara, an executive with the Bamboo Trading Co., hopes that proving the concept in the Aberdares will encourage private landowners in the Mau to follow suit.
"The Bamboo Trading Company intends to share its technical and financial information with the Ministry of Energy and the Ministry of Forestry & Wildlife so that the government can encourage other private companies to copy the initiative," O'Meara said.
There is a chance others might be persuaded to join the restoration effort.
For one, the Kenya Tea Development Agency, which represents 54 tea factories and hundreds of thousands of small-scale farm operations, is constructing power plants as falling water levels at existing hydropower dams make electricity more scarce and expensive.
KTDA launched its own power company last year and completed a 1-megawatt run-of-the-river hydroelectric project to supply the Imenti tea factory near Mount Kenya, about 80 miles east of the Mau complex. The organization is mulling 10 more hydropower projects that would generate a total of 22 MW.
KTDA is not involved in the Mau reforestation efforts, but the cooperative's need for cheap and reliable electricity could see it following O'Meara's lead. The tea cooperative, which spent a record $19.4 million on electricity last year, is exploring ways to generate power from sugarcane biomass.
"Without the Mau, our tea industry cannot be sustainable," underscored KTDA spokesman Fred Gori, who noted that electricity constitutes roughly a third of the cost of producing a kilogram of tea.
None of KTDA's farmers have had land repossessed as part of the Mau restoration efforts, Gori said.
The Kenyan government continues to insist it is committed to restoring the Mau quickly, despite the delays and charges that bureaucrats are equally committed to protecting vested interests that are largely to blame for the forest's destruction.
The ICS is working with a newly formed Ogiek council of elders to develop forest restoration proposals and a registry of families --- many of whom lack title deeds but consider the Mau their ancestral home.
Other people who encroached upon the forest illegally will not be compensated for handing back their land, Prime Minister Odinga and his top aides underscore. To date, more than 40 title deeds have been surrendered without demand for compensation, officials claim.
"Despite all the noise that you hear," ICS Chairman Hassan said, "there is a lot of commitment from the government at the highest level to restore the Mau, to remove people from the forest and settle them elsewhere."