By Kagondu Njagi
THARAKA NITHI, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Logging in the Mount Kenya National Park has set a group of politicians against a local community in a dispute over land rights involving allegations of privilege, harassment and violence.
Atiriri Bururi ma Chuka, a local conservation group whose name translates as "keepers of Chuka community land", says four politicians are working with a company that is felling trees on a 24,000-acre strip of protected forest land.
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The company, Kamweru Farm, has cleared more than 15 acres, says Atiriri, which has mapped the land, and work is continuing, which could scare off wildlife, contribute to climate change, and curb the forest's ability to replenish freshwater stocks, impacting locals' livelihoods.
Commercial logging is prohibited on the land, which is a government reserve but also claimed by the Chuka community. However, the politicians say they obtained a permit in 2014 from the District Forestry Office to harvest trees.
The forestry office confirmed a permit was issued two years ago for the purpose of "forestry research" under the mandate of the Mount Kenya Community Forest Association.
That association is legally recognised by the government to perform activities in the forest such as tree planting and forest fire prevention.
Atiriri's chairman Ngai M'Uboro said the politicians received a permit that communities would never be able to access, taking away a valued local resource.
Politician John Muchiri, who is the Tharaka Nithi County Assembly speaker, said he and three other politicians linked to Kamweru Farm have a permit to legally harvest wood and accused political opponents of trying to sully his name ahead of an election next year.
"I am not involved in any illegal activities because I have a permit allowing me and my partners to cut trees from the forest," Muchiri told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.
"What I know is that some groups, which I will not name, are working with my political opponents to frustrate my efforts to win the Tharaka Nithi Member of Parliament seat in 2017."
The row over the clearance of the land in a forest reserve, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, has caused tempers to flare - and even violence - highlighting the tensions involved in land disputes being fought across Africa.
One member of Atiriri was shot dead by security guards earlier this year as several group members patrolled the area looking for illegal loggers.
The local government said it had not received any reports of illegal logging and would act if it did.
Tharaka Nithi County Environment Minister Albert Mugambi said he believed the forest was fully guarded by the Kenya Forest Service.
"We are not aware of any politician involved in (illegal) logging," Mugambi said in a telephone interview. "If anyone is doing this, it is illegal. They are thieves and should face the full force of the law."
The row over the legality of the logging has highlighted a major underlying tension: Who actually owns the land?
"Mount Kenya forest has always been vulnerable to encroachment because there are issues that remain unresolved as to whether part of the forest lies on community land or not," said James Mugambi, a program officer with Centre for Research in Environment Kenya.
The counties of Tharaka Nithi, home to three of the politicians involved, and Meru, home to the other, flank the forest to the east.
The Kenya Forest Service has placed protection posts at key entry points around the forest and conducts aerial surveillance, according to a ranger at Chuka Forest Station in Tharaka Nithi.
A tea plantation belt separating the forest and upper eastern communities was established by former President Daniel Arap Moi. Recently, an electric fence to restrict encroachment and the movement of elephants was erected along the Tharaka Nithi and Meru forest corridor.
Yet, despite these measures, parts of the forest are still under threat, including the area claimed by the Chuka community. It was incorporated by the government as reserve land in 1934.
According to Wendy Wanja, a lawyer representing the Atiriri group, controversy over who owns the land may explain why politicians have been able to harvest trees there.
"The government claims ownership of this piece of land which they have earmarked for forestry research," she explained.
Official parliamentary records, seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, show the Chuka people have customary tenure of the land, as noted by Wanja.
Local people are angry that politicians have been taking wood from the forest when they do not have enough themselves.
"We are not able to build and repair classrooms because of a lack of timber," said Njiru Kirimo, 36, a farmer in Kiang’ondu village, who said he was beaten twice in 2014 by rangers who accused him of entering the forest illegally to collect wood.
"The current law requires someone to obtain permission from the chief to even cut a tree on their farm. Yet for nearly three years we've seen trucks carrying timber from the forest."
M'Uboro's said he had evidence to show the harvested wood was sold in markets in Nairobi and in Isiolo, northern Kenya.
"Illegal logging in Mount Kenya is a big business, but the money acquired only benefits a few individuals," he added.
(Editing by Megan Rowling and Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)