NAIROBI- Parliamentarians are proposing amending Kenya's forest law to make it easier to change the borders of protected areas, a move activists warn could adversely affect wildlife and the environment in the east African country.
Conservationists say the change would open precious forest land to developers while supporters of the amendment argue it will help protect people with legitimate claims to disputed land from eviction.
The Forest Conservation and Management Amendment would weaken the power of Kenya's Forest Service (KFS) to veto proposed boundary changes that would endanger rare species or water catchment areas. KFS did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Forests around the developing Kenyan capital of Nairobi, nicknamed the "green city in the sun", are at the heart of the debate, now under review by parliamentary committee.
"If that amendment bill is allowed...what we will have is what we are seeing here," said environmentalist Christopher Muriithi, gesturing to a cluster of buildings and a tarmac road cutting through land once part of Oloolua Forest on Nairobi's outskirts.
But the amendment's supporters argue changing the law protects people already settled on disputed forest land - they may be families who saved up to buy a home in good faith.
Parliamentarian Nixon Korir, who has expressed support for an amendment, did not respond to requests for comment but previously said the government must act to protect innocent home owners.
Kenya lost about half of its forest cover between 1980 and 2000, said African Development Bank, and another 11% in the subsequent two decades, according to Global Forest Watch.
Muriithi said when he was young Oloolua covered around 682 hectares but now estimates it has shrunk to 500. Swathes of lush land were carved out by individuals, loggers, developers, and even the state, which built a railway line through the forest. The giraffe, zebra, and buffaloes he remembers have disappeared.
Muriithi does not think they will return, but hopes to protect what is left. He heads a community association that patrols the forest, replaces invasive trees with indigenous ones, and works with officials to prosecute loggers.
But this is dangerous. When he investigated illegal logging, Muriithi said a body was dumped in the forest and he was warned he could be next, forcing him to flee to Uganda.
"It’s dangerous, but I’m happy the community now has come in big numbers," he said, standing by a pile of dirt and wood fragments from land he says was cleared illegally.
"They might kill me or someone else but they will not kill the whole community."
(Reporting by Ayenat Mersie, editing by Ed Osmond)