By Nita Bhalla
NAIROBI - Thousands of people are being removed from Kenya's largest forest, a senior official said on Thursday, in a controversial move aimed at saving the country's most important "water tower", which has been decimated by decades of corruption.
Authorities say thousands of illegal settlers have invaded the Mau forest in Kenya's southwestern Rift Valley over the years, cutting down trees to create farmland. But settlers say they have valid title deeds.
George Natembeya, Rift Valley Regional Commissioner, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that about 200 officers from the Kenya Forest Service had been deployed to the area to help people move, insisting there had been no forceful evictions.
"Evictions started on Monday and we have given people 60 days to leave," said Natembeya, adding that he did not know how many people had left, but some 10,000 people were facing eviction.
"It is a very fragile ecosystem and we are encouraging people to leave. Some people are leaving voluntarily and there has been no reason to use any force."
Human rights groups say about 60,000 settlers are being targeted, in the latest effort to halt the destruction of what is referred to as Kenya's key water tower because it channels rainwater into a dozen major rivers and lakes.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation was not able to reach Mau forest residents to comment on the evictions.
Land has been an explosive issue in Kenya since the colonial era, with government reports showing corrupt officials have allocated large parcels to reward their supporters and win votes, particularly in the politically-important Rift Valley.
Since Kenya's independence in 1963, the Mau forest has lost almost 37% of its original area to unchecked settlement, illegal logging and the burning of charcoal - with the greatest losses recorded in 2001/2, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature.
Environmentalists have long campaigned for better protection of Kenya's dwindling government-owned forests, but previous eviction efforts have stalled due to political divisions and allegations of corruption in the sale of title deeds.
The Mau Forest Complex covers more than 400,000 hectares (990,000 acres) and supplies water to the Mara River, known for its annual wildebeest migration. It also provides water to 10 million residents of Nairobi and other urban centres.
Human rights campaigners said some people who were evicted in the past received compensation but others have not and called on authorities to ensure reparations.
"The argument to evict people due to environmental concerns is valid, but they should be rehabilitated," said Tirop Kitur, a former commissioner with the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights who now focuses displacement and governance issues.
"Many settlers in Mau forest were duped with fraudulent title deeds and so it's not their fault that they should be evicted - without any support - from land they believed was theirs."