A Political Ecology of Kenya’s Mau Forest

Lisa Elena Fuchs

In three sentences, please tell us what your book is about. 

Using a broad political ecology approach, the book contextualizes the alleged environmental crisis facing Kenya’s most important closed-canopy forest, the Mau Forest Complex, and sheds light on the manifold complex and interrelated causes of forest destruction, degradation and non-protection.

It illustrates that the ‘Mau crisis’ is an expression of diverging powerful interests at play, which manifest in complex interactions between various local and global dynamics of cause and consequence and situate the crisis at their intersection.

Ultimately, my research illustrates that the Mau crisis is more than an environmental crisis, but also a political, an economic, and a socio-cultural crisis – which calls for a holistic and systemic reconceptualisation of both the crisis itself, and the proposed solutions.

The ‘upper’ zone in Mariashoni Location with remaining indigenous and secondary forest. All photos taken by the author.

Tell us about the ‘Save the Mau’ initiative and its significance. 

The ambitious ‘Save the Mau’ campaign, officially called Mau Forest Rehabilitation Programme, was launched in September 2009. It followed the establishment of a Special Task Force in July 2008, the publication of its alarming report in March 2009, and the concurrent creation of an Interim Coordinating Secretariat (ICS) under the office of then Prime Minister Raila Odinga in September 2009. Building on a diligent (although incomplete) causal analysis, the programme proposed a fairly comprehensive approach to averting an ecological crisis in the country and the wider region. It proposed implementing a five-phased spatial-temporal plan that combined forest zoning, forest boundary solidification, reforestation, public land reclamation, participatory forestry, livelihood enhancement for forest-adjacent communities on the ground with institutional reforms for greater integration and more sustainable forest production. Beyond that, a more holistic approach to forest management was to provide for exceptional protection of water catchment areas and biodiversity hotspots and supersede the prevailing forestry-based perspective and philosophy, which had historically focused on timber and wood production rather than ecosystem conservation. The programme was to be implemented by a consortium of government, parastatals, and non-government actors. 

However, the implementation of the programme was halted only a few months into its inception. While momentum had been generated around the launch of the campaign, and several heavily mediatised tree planting drives been celebrated, tides turned in the context of violent evictions of forest-dwelling communities in the name of forest and forest land reclamation at the onset of the second and especially third phase. Politicians opposed to the initiative were able to capitalise on this public outrage, and ‘Saving the Mau’ became increasingly politicised. Consequently, the implementation of the five-phased plan stalled from late 2010. At the time, only the first phase had been completed, while some phase two targets were met as well. The even more contentious activities included in phases three to five remained unaddressed. 

Institutionally, an important shift took place with the creation of the Kenya Water Towers Authority in 2012, which succeeded the ICS to coordinate and oversee the protection, rehabilitation, conservation, and sustainable management of water towers. It coincided with the declaration that all water towers – a term that refers to montane forest areas that ‘act as a receptacle for rainwater and that store(s) water in the aquifers underneath (it) and gradually release(s) the water to the springs and springs emanating from it’ – were vital national infrastructure. They were hence taken back from the Counties that had otherwise taken control over environmental and forest management in the context of the territorial reorganisation and decentralisation introduced by the 2010 Constitution.

The political change in 2013, which saw Uhuru Kenyatta ascend to power, and his confirmation in office for a second term in 2017, represented a decisive volte-face in the matter. Both him and Kenya’s new president William Ruto, elected in September 2022, have been famously associated with the status quo in the Mau crisis. Consequently, whatever progress continued being made since 2013 has been limited. Since then, a limited number of non-governmental actors funded by international development partners have implemented livelihood-focused programmes with forest-adjacent communities, notably in community forestry. State-led action has remained sporadic since 2010, and typically intertwined with political issues at opportune times. However, in the context of climate change debates and nationally-determined contributions, the government has stepped up its reforestation rhetoric in the last few years. After President Kenyatta had launched a first national tree-planting drive in 2018, President Ruto recently launched a forest and land restoration programme, which involves a campaign to plant 15 million trees to increase Kenya’s forest cover to 30 per cent by 2032. Whether and how this will benefit the Mau Forest remains to be seen.

Annex 1: ‘If trees gave off Wifi signals’ Greenpeace illustration (Source: Pinterest.com (accessed 6 August 2017).

What are the main threats to the Mau Forest?

The imminent threat to the Mau Forest is massive deforestation. Between the 1970s and the 2000s, more than a quarter of the forest that covers 416,543 ha, or 4,165 km², were cleared, and about half of the dense vegetation cover was lost. This deforestation has been driven by politically-connected big timber companies that operate within state forests without respecting – or having to abide by – laws that otherwise promote sustainable forest management approaches and practices. Small- and medium-scale sawmillers contribute to deforestation by cutting trees on (irregularly) privatised farmland in the forest. Beyond the focus on capitalist forest exploitation and wood production for financial gains, large-scale land conversion of forest to private land has been a predominant driver of deforestation, and with that to both large-scale crop farms alongside small- and medium-scale homesteads. Deforestation peaked when a number of settlement schemes were declared in the Mau Forest in the late 1990s, and the government mandated licensed timber companies to clear the respective areas. To a lesser degree, deforestation and forest destruction are caused by members of forest-dwelling or adjacent communities encroaching into the remaining natural forest areas. 

Substantial deforestation has led to massive habitat loss for plant and animal species, and a major decline in biodiversity in the Mau Forest. Deforestation at the summit of the Mau escarpment, in some instances right up to the source of some of the most famous rivers in the region, has majorly impacted the forest’s capacity to regulate the water cycle, which directly impacts water levels in rivers and water catchment areas, alongside the micro-climate for the entire region. Since about 30 rivers, including the famous Mara River that millions of wildebeests cross every year during the Great Migration, have their source in the Mau Forest, this has had important impacts in both up and downstream areas. The expansion of farming activities, and the use of chemical farm inputs, have also led to water contamination, and to a noticeable decline in pollinators. The livelihood impacts of these and other secondary effects of deforestation have been considerable both in the Mau Forest and in the wider region. They also include substantial economic impacts due to the forest’s location in the fertile Rift Valley, and the dependence of various sectors, especially agricultural production and hydropower generation, on a functioning Mau Forest ecosystem. 

Today, almost a decade after I conducted my research, and almost fifteen years after the inception of the ‘Save the Mau’ campaign, satellite image comparisons reveal that the Mau Forest is in worse shape than ever.

 Annex 14: Pictures of the state of Elapuyapui swamp in Kiptunga Forest, the source of Mara River (2011) All photos taken by the author.

How did colonialism play a role in the threat to the Mau forest?

There are quite some interesting, and sometimes devastating, analyses of the post-colonial footprint in Kenya – both in terms of the structures and practices that were introduced during colonial times (many of which were maintained after Independence in 1963), as well as the changing but persistent impact of these structures and practices. Other dynamics are less well studied and known. 

The active destruction of the Mau Forest started early in the colonial enterprise, and post-colonial concepts, systems, and practices continued to shape the unsustainable approach to forest management in the country in general, and specifically the failed governance of the Mau Forest. Some notable examples include:

Seeking both timber and wood fuel for the expansion of the Uganda Railway, also referred to as ‘Lunatic Express’, the colonial regime started deforesting parts of the natural forest in the Mau Forest from the beginning of its expansion into what they named their East African Protectorate. Later, they replaced primary with secondary forests containing fast-growing exotic tree species. Both the initial deforestation and the subsequent forest conversion translated the regime’s conceptualisation of forests, and other natural resources for that matter, in terms of tradeable commodities to support economic development, rather than vital natural environments whose value exceeds economic rationales.

Forest commodification was also related to international trade, leading to forest destruction to feed foreign consumption. As in other sectors and countries, the state-run timber-manufacturing companies operated with the help of members of selected ethnic groups on the ground, who introduced a sedentarised and farming lifestyles (at the time enabled by what would later be called the shamba system). This exposed the resident hitherto semi-nomadic hunting and gathering community to the supposed gains of wage labour and forest commodifying activities. In an interest to divide and control, differential treatment of the state-sponsored in-migrants and the resident population gained momentum, alongside a popularisation of ethnic stereotypes, some of which persist until today. These stereotypes aligned neatly with colonial conservation discourses and the supposed ability of different communities to appreciate and manage resources appropriately. 

These discourses strongly influenced conservation practice as well, and when most of the Mau Forest was gazetted in the 1930s, exclusionary practices became enforced through fences and fines – ostensibly to protect the resources from locals’ supposed encroachment and misuse. The same locals experienced and represented the conversion of their ancestral lands, the bans on their traditional livelihood practices, and the disruption of their socio-spatial land use systems, as threatening their very existence. 

The colonial government, implementing the recommendations of the 1920 Committee on the Dorobo Question and the 1932 Carter Commission, created so-called Native Reserves to promote assimilation and sedentarisation– which led to the planned and further marginalisation of the local community. This also promoted land privatisation and subdivision and opened the door to future land conversion and agricultural expansion.

The book will show readers in detail that many of the issues facing the Mau Forest today have their root either directly or indirectly in colonial structures and practice.

Do many communities inhabit this area? How have their lives changed since the ‘Save the Mau’ initiative?

The Mau Forest in general, and the Eastern Mau specifically, are considered to be the ancestral home of the Ogiek community, a hunter-and-gatherer community that is officially recognised as indigenous minority in Kenya. In the southern part of the Mau Forest, some forest areas are considered as ancestral lands of the Maasai pastoralist community. These include the ‘Maasai Mau’ forest reserve, one of the 22 forest blocks comprising the Mau Forest, which has a specific status due to being located on Community Land. During colonial times, a limited number of members from other Kenyan communities were resettled in the forest, predominantly Kikuyu forest workers. Physical proximity, barter trade and sporadic intermarriages engendered further but overall limited interaction with other communities. Throughout the colonial and post-colonial periods, all three communities experienced cycles of politically instigated attempts of dispossession, relocation and eviction from the forest. 

Things changed dramatically in the area after a coup attempt on then President Daniel arap Moi in 1982. Many changes were experienced in the Eastern Mau in the 1980s, including the final eviction of a sizeable group of forest-dwelling Kikuyu, alongside school closures, destruction of infrastructure, abolition of the shamba system etc. At the same time started the progressive in-migration of other communities, especially of different Kalenjin sub-groups associated with the President, in an apparent increase of political favouritism and patronage. After the re-introduction of multi-party democracy in 1991, in-migration increased further. It climaxed with the declaration of various settlement schemes in 1997 and an accompanying allocation of 5-acre plots to individual owners. Since then, thousands of in-migrating families either bought or received plots in the wider area. 

Today, many members of the indigenous Ogiek differentiate between three groups of non-Ogiek inhabitants of the Eastern Mau specifically: First, the long-term forest-dwellers who basically live like the Ogiek, often referred to as ‘Dorobo’; second, more recent individual arrivals who integrate well; and third, the large number of people arriving in groups since the 1990s who did not integrate the local lifestyle. The latter are typically referred to as ‘in-migrants’, ‘guests’, or even ‘foreigners’. Despite regular population census data being collected, the number of inhabitants in the Mau Forest is contested, as well as the precise number of Ogiek living in and outside of the Mau Forest. It is estimated that at least 30,000 households originating from outside the forest had settled in the Mau Forest by 2009, while the Ogiek were estimated at 5,000 to 10,000, 3,000-4,000 of which were said to live in the Eastern Mau.

The onset of the ‘Save the Mau’ campaign brought a lot of tension to the Mau Forest. While the Prime Minister’s Task Force recommended evicting all forest dwellers, it was soon confirmed that the Ogiek would be allowed to remain in the forest. Nonetheless, it was unclear what and who defined whether people qualified as Ogiek, and whether they would be relocated elsewhere or could stay put. Other settlers, many of whom brandished a ‘Dorobo’ identity, were to be evicted. In the context of forest boundary solidification, public forest land reclamation, and overall forest rehabilitations, the first evictions of forest-dwellers were carried out in November 2009, and climaxed in early 2010. The public outcry over these forest evictions barely two years after the 2007/08 Post-Election Violence crisis had violently displaced several thousand Kenyans, eventually led to an early halt of evictions, alongside other more decisive measures included in the ‘Save the Mau’ agenda.

At the same time, the uncertainty about the future of life and activities in the Mau Forest continued growing, which led to extremely unsustainable land use practices across most actor groups in the forest in the initial months and years after the establishment of the Task Force in 2008. While political changes brought about by the 2013 elections made a comprehensive implementation of the Mau Rehabilitation Programme less likely, residents of the Mau Forest have continued witnessing sporadic conservation-focused activities and evictions. The engendered uncertainty about the future of the Mau not only continued influencing forest-dwellers’ practices, but also influenced the nature and sustainability of externally-supported development efforts, and both public and private investments in the area.

Annex 9: Pictures of an Ogiek elder from the South-Western Mau in traditional attire (2012). All photos taken by the author.

Was there anything in your research that especially surprised you?

My research highlights a lot of different dynamics, and illustrates the workings of power in environmental crises from various angles. I encountered many of the issues that are commonly discussed in resource exploitation-focused post-coloniality settings. Other dynamics, or interdependencies between different dynamics, surprised me more – either because they had not been previously discussed (in the context of the Mau Forest), or because they plainly overstretched my imagination. Some of these include:

  • Problem analyses and proposed solutions continued to focus on symptoms rather than systemic and holistic assessments and approaches – even when these proved insufficient time and again.
  • The disconnect between the discourse, and the public representation of what was being done to ‘Save the Mau’ – and the actual realities on the ground. This was particularly flagrant in the fact that tree planting drives were implemented, forest-dwellers evicted, fences to solidify forest boundaries and restrict movement erected – and all of this was hotly debated – while the big timber companies continued clear cutting the forest only a few kilometres away without even attempting to disguise their activities, and land sales of parcels in other parts of the Mau Forest continued to flourish.
  • How pervasively technicalities were invoked to maintain the status quo. Such technicalities, for instance, made it possible for the politically connected big timber companies to continue unsustainably deforesting the Mau, both during the logging ban imposed from 1999 to 2011, and after the onset of the Mau Rehabilitation Programme. Other technicalities allowed the small- and medium-sized sawmillers to deforest supposedly private landholdings in the middle of the forest at the same time. It is no surprise that the logging ban that was reinstated in 2018 did not help to curb deforestation.
  • Collective conservation action in the forest was simultaneously overestimated and underappreciated. While the big, mediated conservation activities did not have a significant impact, some smaller organisations led by and with local knowledge and care proposed viable activities and made important contributions. In relation with the same, I was struck again and again by the fact that some of the large-scale initiatives did not seem to have been built on and involved scientific expertise and knowledge. Looking at reforestation activities in particular, a clearer focus on natural regeneration, or context-specific enrichment planting with native species rather than random tree planting drives might have helped to make quick gains. The implemented reforestation activities would further have benefitted from attention being paid to tree growing, beyond tree planting, and the need to plant the rights trees at the right time at the right places with appropriate management arrangements.
  • The disconnect between what was publicly decided and celebrated, and often operationalised through regulations and laws on the one hand, and what was effectively done and applied on the ground on the other. The local KFS officers’ disinterest in implementing community forest conservation measures enshrined in the 2005 Forests Act in general, and to engage PELIS specifically, for instance, led to a complete disregard of potential gains that could have been made through community forestry – just because they could. This highlights the importance of not stopping at advocating for and celebrating legal wins, but to pay attention and cultivate a culture of looking at their operationalisation and actualisation on the ground.
  • How pervasively public opinion was created, used and abused to advance sectorial and selfish interests. Continued impunity and land grabbing were disguised behind a human rights rhetoric, while community forestry – and specifically PELIS, a revamped version of the previous shamba system, that could contribute to positive changes both in the distribution of both benefits and power if implemented properly – was delegitimised by invoking previous experiences that linked the poorly implemented and misappropriated shamba system with deforestation. 

I was often reminded that it is important to remember that power seeks to diffuse attention and divert blame. It often uses manipulation tactics which include feeding popular stereotypes, emotionally loaded fears and ‘received ideas’. Cultivating a critical sense of analysis and distance to information being shared allows to approach potential misinformation before settling for common and somewhat ‘comfortable’ explanation patterns.

Taking a step back from the intricate details of my research, I also reminded myself again and again that the analysis of the complexity in contributions to forest destruction, degradation and non-protection, both systemic and actor-based, and the resulting plurality in responsibility for the crisis – which, for instance, includes some segments of the traditionally forest-dwelling Ogiek community – should not divert from focusing clearly on who and what has caused the most damage in the Mau Forest.

Fundamentally, while it confirmed my hypotheses, I continued to be surprised that environmental crises, indeed, are, first and foremost, political crises. If we look closely, all environmental crises manifest the workings of power at different scales and places, vested in different actors. In that vein, my research shows that an undertaking as existential as saving the Mau Forest can actively undermined on the grounds of a series of small technicalities, which allow powerful actors to maintain the status quo of a crisis that benefits them – unless there is real political will to make a change.

The Kenyan experience with the 2017 ban on single-use plastic carrier bags made us all aware of the importance and power of political will to foster disruptive change. With political will, things might be difficult (or, in the case of the plastic bag ban, actually much smoother and easier than most observers expected!) – but without political will, the kind of transformative change required to truly save the Mau Forest, and all other large-scale ecosystems and landscapes of extraordinary importance, will remain impossible. Reminding those in charge of their power to transform (environmental) realities for the better, and reminding them that the world is watching, highlights the importance of continuous and courageous collective action to hold them accountable. Popular awareness and care for environmental topics has grown tremendously in Kenya since the onset of the ‘Save the Mau’ campaign almost 15 years ago, especially amongst young people, and I hope that their unapologetic and politically-aware quests for action, combined with technological advances to monitor environmental changes in real time, and continuous scientific inquiry into the workings of power relations that cause and maintain environmental crises can contribute to manifest that environmental conservation, and especially something as well researched as sustainable forest management, are not only necessary to save our planet, but also attainable, and that they can be beneficial for all.

Annex 22: Doing the research (2011-2013). Side-note: the man seen with the author in the first ‘doing the research’ picture is J.K Towett, the famous Ogiek leader from the Eastern Mau.
All photos taken by the author

A Political Ecology of Kenya’s Mau Forest

The Land, the Trees, and the People


Hardcover, 9781847013477, February 2023
404pp., 10 b/w illus., 
Eastern Africa Series
James Currey

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