Ngong Hills, Ngong, Kenya

Kenyan environmentalists protest proposed forest bill amendments

The bill proposes amending a crucial part of Kenya’s Forest Act of 2005, which strengthened protections for Kenya’s forests and helped stop illegal acquisition of public forest lands.

The World

Ngong Hills, Ngong, Kenya

Rotsee2/CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Ngong Road Forest in Nairobi is the biggest forest in the city, lush with wildlife and plants.

For Mariam Sembo, a 35-year-old nurse, it’s a welcome reprieve from the busy city. She likes to visit with her son.

“It's a safe space for me to come here on a daily [basis]. Living in apartments and everything, you don't get to have big spaces where you can run around, where [my son] can run around. So for me, this place is very sentimental.”

Mariam Sembo, a 35-year-old nurse, Nairobi

“It's a safe space for me to come here on a daily [basis],” Sembo said. “Living in apartments and everything, you don't get to have big spaces where you can run around, where [my son] can run around. So for me, this place is very sentimental.”

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But Sembo is worried that a new bill proposed this month in Kenya’s Parliament threatens the future of forests like these.

The forest conservation and management (amendment) bill 2021 proposes amending a crucial part of Kenya’s Forest Act of 2005, which strengthened protections for Kenya’s forests and helped stop illegal acquisition of public forest lands.

“The law has really worked to protect the boundaries of the forests,” said Simon Nganga of the Ngong Road Forest Association.

The proposed amendments would repeal section 34 of the Forest Act that requires any requested changes to public forest boundaries to go through the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), and instead, allow the public to petition lawmakers directly.

Nganga argues this would weaken KFS’ veto powers and could have devastating consequences on Kenya’s forests and the people who use them for collecting wood, medicinal herbs, honey and more.

“If you allow, now, individuals to decide or to alter boundaries and eventually maybe split the forest, or maybe give it out to private individuals, we are going to lose it,” Nganga said.

Kenyan environmental groups have been lobbying hard against the proposed changes, and some have suggested politicians are trying to make it easier for themselves to grab land, or to deal out favors amid a heated presidential election year.

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But Nixon Korir, a member of Parliament for Langata constituency in Nairobi, has a different explanation. Ngong Road Forest falls under his constituency.

“The amendment is proposing a deletion of a section of the statue of the forest bill to align it to Article 119 of the constitution.” 

Nixon Korir, a member of Parliament for Langata Constituency in Nairobi

“The amendment is proposing a deletion of a section of the statue of the forest bill to align it to Article 119 of the constitution,” he said.

That article says any person has the constitutional right to petition Parliament on any issue.

Korir added that the Kenya Forest Service has been slow in doing its part to resolve land issues involving people living on forest land that has already been developed.

That’s been hurting some of his constituents in Langata who are battling eviction — “Because of the failure of KFS to solve those matters. That’s when, now, some Kenyans are now proposing amendments to the law so that it can allow them to sort the mess that KFS cannot sort,” Korir said.

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He argues that KFS needs to help sort out the legal quandaries facing people already living on developed forest lands.

Still, he doesn’t think the proposed legislation is the answer — “Because it will open a Pandora’s box and it can be used by people who are against environmental conservation to tamper with the boundaries of the forest and that is why I oppose it.”