NAIROBI, 31 August (IRIN) - Over
800 people reduced to living in makeshift shelters by the side of the Thika-Naivasha
road have complained that they were harassed by forestry officials into
leaving Kyeni Forest, 95 km from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, in recent
months after living there peaceably and with the government's agreement
for eight years.
The group of 867 internally displaced persons (IDPs), forced out of Kyeni by forest station officers in early June, were since stranded in a roadside camp in Huruma, Thika District, with poor access to food, water and sanitation, they said.
Huruma camp committee chairman Gad Wainaina told IRIN that forest rangers had beaten the IDPs and burned their houses to the ground, forcing them to leave the forest where they had lived since 1993. "All our identity documents were confiscated and destroyed, forcing us to live like refugees," he said.
Earlier this week, the process of moving the Huruma IDPs to a new plot back inside the forest began, "to remove them from the dangers at the roadside", according to an official from the Thika District Forest Office. However, it was not known how long the IDPs would be allowed to stay on the new land, as it was only intended to be a temporary measure, he said.
Some among the IDPs fear that the relocation plan is a ruse to move them from the roadside and hide them from public view, and that violent attacks from forest officials could start again once they are less visible.
On 13 February, after eight years in Kyeni, 3,000 farmers were originally told by the forest ranger that they had seven days to vacate their homes or be forcibly evicted, Wainaina said. Some left at that time and in the next few months, with the remainder forced to leave in early June.
The group had been living and farming in the forest with the consent of the Kenyan government since 1993, having fled political violence in surrounding districts that was associated with Kenya's first multi-party parliamentary elections in 1992.
An agreement between the Kyeni IDPs and forest officials had allowed the farmers to stay and build homes in the forest, in return for an annual rent of Ksh 350 per hectare and four days' free labour per month in the forest's tree nursery.
Local sources told IRIN that the farmers had been sustaining the forest by planting and growing trees. "These people are the creators of the forest," they said.
The agreement had been working to the benefit of all parties, including the government, until the appointment of a new forest ranger in December 2000, according to the displaced people.
Camp committee members claimed there had been no new trees planted in Kyeni this year, and that the new forester had told the Commissioner for Central Province, Zachary Ogongo, that he did not have sufficient labour to manage the government-gazetted forest. However, illegal logging was taking place with the tolerance of local foresters, according to the IDPs.
Humanitarian sources told IRIN that the government in 1994 approved a policy that no new shelters would be permitted in government-owned forest. However, Kyeni was the only forest where the policy was being implemented, they said.
"We would like to know why we are being mistreated after all these years," the camp committee said in a statement.
The farmers were evicted from Kyeni because they were residing there illegally, a Thika District forest officer told IRIN. Although they had been permitted to cultivate land inside the forest, they were meant to travel to the land daily, while living outside the forest boundaries, he added.
Over two-thirds of the population had fled Kyeni after being threatened with eviction, according to Wainaina. Others had been unable to leave and were forced to hide in the forest for several months, foraging for food and evading further attacks. Eventually, they had come to stay on the roadside where they were visible to passing vehicles and their safety was improved, Wainaina said.
He claimed that forest officials were still harassing the Kyeni IDPs while they were in Huruma. "If we go to our land to get food, we are beaten up. Sometimes they even come up to the camp to bother us," he said.
The Kyeni IDPs were struggling to ensure access to adequate food supplies, according to the camp committee. In the forest they had been able to grow and harvest their own crops, and could sell surplus to buy clothes and medicines, but if forced to live outside it they have no food and no income, they said.
The Kenyan Red Cross Society has distributed a small amount of food (including sugar, rice, maize flour and cooking oil), provided some tarpaulins for shelter, and brought a doctor to visit those who were unwell, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), Kenya.
Hopes are rising that the 'Kyeni farmers' could be returned to the forest indefinitely: following pressure from local Member of Parliament, Patrick Kariuki, the government has agreed to relocate the farmers to a different part of the forest than that they previously occupied.
Under the relocation plans, the Kyeni IDPs would be able to cultivate part of the forest as before and would work a number of days unpaid for the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, planting trees. The annual rent would also be increased to Ksh 400 per hectare per year, Wainaina said.
Camp committee members told IRIN that, despite the fear of renewed violence once they were out of the public eye, they had no option but to take up the government's offer. "Our alternative is to die," said one of their number.
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