Population pressure and increasing poverty are leading many Kenyans to settle around Mount Kenya and work as subsistence farmers. This is causing many environmental problems.
Every morning 47-year-old Esther Murugi enters the forest hills of Nanyuki to till her small farmland, aware that her work is causing a fierce row among environmentalists and authorities over the future of Mount Kenya.
Nanyuki, lying some 250 km north of the capital Nairobi and standing at an altitude of 3,350 to 5,200 metres above sea level, marks the northern boundary of Mount Kenya forest – an important natural resource in the east African country. Kenyan environmentalists are worried that economic activity in the Mount Kenya region is causing deforestation and important water sources to dry up.
But in a country that has no clear policies to protect its forests, local forest officers willingly turn a blind eye to Murugi and other small farmers like her for a bribe of Kenyan shillings 1,500 (about $19) each.
Farming in Mt Kenya forests is nothing new, but increasing use of the forest land for seasonal shifting cultivation by poor and marginalised people -a system known locally as shamba -is leading to environmental concerns.
Under the system, subsistence farmers are meant to plant trees before moving on to a fresh plot of land after three years of farming. But a recent study by the Kenya Forest Working Group, a local lobby group, and the government's Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) shows that over 75 per cent of clear-felled plantations have not been replanted with tree seedlings.
Murugi like other local squatters defends the shamba system. "We have to feed our children and this is the only place I can plant crops," she says pointing to her crops of arrowroot and potatoes that are just enough to feed her four children.
But Dr Dominic Walubengo, director of Forest Action Network, a local non-governmental organisation, says the shamba system is not working because some farmers are refusing to vacate land earmarked for tree-planting.
Well-known Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, who hails from the Mt Kenya region, is bitter about the system. "The shamba system is to blame for the destruction of the forest. Nobody is planting trees anymore and the Treasury is encouraging foresters to generate funds from forest products," she says.
Maathai has collected more than 35,000 signatures demanding an end to the shamba system.
At the moment Mt Kenya is home to some 30,000 landless families who farm inside the forest. Although the KWS accuses the farmers of destroying the forest, it has no say over them since farmers are technically under the forest department despite a decision two years ago to give the KWS some say over the management of Mt Kenya.
Forest department officials say that if the shamba system is done away with the landless farmers and jobless may cause more problems to the forest since the department does not have the capacity to patrol the entire Mt. Kenya forest region, covering more than 715 sq. km.
"Most of the destruction is borne out of poverty. People come here [inside the forest] to earn a living and at the moment if we destroy their means of survival we will be fighting a losing battle to save the forest," says Eric Kareithi, a forester in Nanyuki.
Many of Mt. Kenya's squatters have come from nearby slums in search of a livelihood -with Kenya's population growing at a rapid 2.4 per cent a year, the forest is one of the few places where they can farm.
The government says that the only way to stop the destruction of the forest is to settle the landless in other, cleared areas of the forest and in April last year announced a plan to clear over 67,000 hectares of forest all over Kenya, including more than 2,600 hectares in Mt Kenya.
But campaigners have blocked the move through a court order, saying the clearances will affect two of the largest water-catchment areas of the country – Mt Kenya and the Mau forests. They also say that the move to settle landless inside forests may encourage other squatters to set up on forest land in the hope they will later be settled.
"There are large tracts of land available in Kenya and if the government is serious it should publish a list of squatters to be settled," says Wanyiri Kihoro, a member of parliament from the Mt Kenya region.
Environmentalists say that the destruction of the Mt Kenya ecosystem to settle the 30,000 landless families will ruin the water supply and hydroelectric generation projects along the main rivers that flow from the Mt Kenya and Nyandarua ranges, some 50 km south-west of Mt Kenya.
Mt Kenya is one of Kenya's five main 'water towers' – sources of rivers supplying most of Kenya's water. But increasing use of water resources for irrigation -by both subsistence farmers and large-scale farmers growing commercial crops -means there is less water available for people living downstream of the rivers.
Campaigners warn about a looming water crisis -they say water conflicts are in the offing, including conflicts between humans and wildlife.
But water for irrigation is needed for other important reasons. Horticulture has overtaken coffee as the major cash crop in Kenya, and water is needed to irrigate a crop that earned the country $110 million in foreign exchange last year.
All of this has led the KWS to propose a five-year plan that will banish the squatters from the vicinity of Mt Kenya. If the plan is accepted by the government -and this is by no means certain as the wildlife and forest departments are a loggerheads over who has authority over what -not only will the squatters be expelled, but all families living in the vicinity will have to pay a substantial amount to graze their livestock and draw water from the natural springs in Mt Kenya.
The problem for policy makers is what to do with the landless who see the mountain as a means of survival to which they have a right.
"If they give us land to till we will have no business entering the forest," says Murugi. But environmentalists disagree – the population pressure will not cease, they fear, and this could mean the end of Mt Kenya's forests.
Murugi's concerns are more immediate and stark: "Our children will never die when there is idle land around," she says.
"The problem is that there is no clear policy on forests in this country vis-a-vis the issue of settlements," says environmental campaigner Maathai.