Kenya: Experts Raise the Red Flag Over Forest Loss

Nairobi — Human activity and the quest for precious metals are once again piling pressure on heritage sites in Msambweni and Kilifi districts.

Conservationists and heritage experts led by the National Museums of Kenya have raised the red flag and are calling for an end to the wanton destruction threatening the existence of a sacred forest (kaya) in Msambweni and Mtwapa, one of the earliest Swahili settlements in Africa.

In Mrima, a forested hill — which was gazetted as a sacred grove under the Antiquities and Monuments Act in 1992 and gazetted in 1989 by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources as a nature reserve — is at the centre of focus as a South African firm (Cortec Mining Kenya Limited) has been given the go-ahead to prospect for precious metals.

A senior official in the Mines and Geology department told the Nation that the firm had only been given the permission to explore and not to mine and therefore there was no cause for alarm.

“Exploration is merely to establish whether there are enough deposits for commercial mining and it’s from the findings that firms will apply for a mining licence which comes with a comprehensive environmental impact assessment.

“The prospectors are looking for minerals called niobium and other phosphates used in the manufacture of fertiliser. Now, they will only be taking samples for tests,” said the official who did not wish to be named and referred the Nation to the ministry’s permanent secretary for more details.

Cortec director David Anderson, in a communication to the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources of January 27, 2010, requested for the extension of the Special Prospecting Licence (LPS) for a further 12 months.

In an earlier communication the licence was to expire in March 2010 but they argued that they had not completed the exploratory work.

“We are requesting this extension so that we can complete our assessment and make constructive recommendations for an environmentally friendly mining plan, a reforestation programme for Mrima Hill where mineralised zone is only 4.4 square kilometres and upgrade of the forest that is badly degraded.

“We need to restore the access roads so that the community, forestry staff and our exploration team to Mrima Hill will limit any further degrading of the forest,” Mr Anderson said. He said the firm had worked on projects in various parts of Africa and was acutely aware of the need to protect natural resources.

The award has, however, put the various government agencies on a collision course because some are opposed to the idea of letting the prospecting continue while others have given approval but with conditions.

According to a letter signed by the director of Kenya Forest Services (KFS), Mr D.K. Mbugua dated May 2010, authority was given to Cortec Mining Kenya Limited to open up tracts leading to prospecting areas within Mrima Forest.

But the director set conditions which restrict bush clearing within road areas (not to exceed six metres) compensate for any materials cut down and ensure that forest biodiversity and cultural sites within the forest are not interfered with.

“The Kenya Forest Service will supervise the road works and monitor movement of vehicles and personnel within the forest,” the letter read in part.

The situation in Mrima is, however, different and according to residents who depend on the forest for herbs and source of water, the destruction of the forest is ongoing as prospectors clear more areas for access roads.

Huge trees have been felled, and according to kaya elder and chairman of Kaya Mrima Self-Help group Omari Alale, the exploration for minerals is worrying because the company is not doing what it promised to do.

“As we see the situation now, the work is going against the conditions set. They have brought in big earth movers in the forest to open up the roads and the machines have caused untold damage.

“If the trend continues, we will have no forest to talk of, let alone the sacred forest where the secrets of the Digo community have been safeguarded,” Mr Alawe said in a letter dated August 28, and addressed to Dr Bernard Rop, the commissioner of Mines and Geology.

Chief curator in charge of the Fort Jesus Museums and Mombasa and South Coast sites and monuments Jimbi Katana said there were fears that the heritage site with rich cultural and scientific value could be destroyed if tough conditions were not set for those prospecting.

“Already, there are over 800 pits that were dug by previous prospectors and the most disheartening thing is that some of them are just some few metres away from the shrine within the kaya.

“One of the conditions that need to be adhered to is that there should be no pit within a radius of 100 metres from the sacred grove. What we are seeing is that some of the bigger holes have been dug between four and 10 metres away,” he said.

Mr Katana said they had not yet been made aware of the method the explorers will be employing to get the materials for sampling.According to environmentalist Nassir Abdalla Bege, Mrima Hill has been classified as an Important Bird Area (IBA) in the world.

Some species are only found there. The biodiversity also includes rare indigenous trees, butterflies, frogs and snakes that have attracted researchers from Kenya and other parts of the world.

“Previous explorers have come to the area and scooped several tonnes of material for testing, but to date, we have not been told what they have found apart from the pits that have been left uncovered within the forested area,” Mr Katana said.

As the situation in Mrima gets more complicated, the National Museums of Kenya is faced with another serious problem in Mtwapa where an area gazetted in 1932 as a monument is feeling the heat of people now cutting trees to clear the place for property development.

Last week, the site in Mtwapa, one of the earliest Swahili settlements in Africa, according to Mr Jimbi, has seen more than 50 indigenous trees cut down.

“A private developer who was once a land surveyor in the province had acquired the land and has been trying to sell plots to individuals despite the area being gazetted as a national heritage site.

“The developer has gone ahead to remove a wooden board erected near the entrance to the vast forest since it has been acting as a warning to potential buyers,” said the chief curator.

The Mtwapa site is also renowned for its forest, wildlife sanctuary, beach and religious purposes.

http://www.nation.co.ke