Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai condemned the brutality used against thousands of peasants in Kenya's forest eviction programme but defended the policy as vital to save the east African nation's environment.
NAIROBI Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai condemned the brutality used against thousands of peasants in Kenya's forest eviction programme but defended the policy as vital to save the east African nation's environment.
In an interview with Reuters, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner and Kenyan deputy environment minister also said Group of Eight leaders should be praised, not berated, for some progress on climate change made at their recent summit in Scotland.
As a former environmental activist often in scrapes with authorities but now a senior member of President Mwai Kibaki's government, Maathai is in a tricky position regarding the recent controversial expulsion of up to 50,000 people from Mau Forest.
The government says the clearances are the first in a long-term project to reclaim Kenya's once-mighty forests, which have dwindled to a mere 1.7 percent of national territory and collect water vital to agriculture and wildlife.
But the evictions at short notice by gun-toting police who have beaten peasant farmers, torched their homes and given them nowhere to go has outraged opposition politicians and rights groups who compare them to Zimbabwe's slum clearances.
"I believe that people should be removed from the forests, we should reclaim these forests," Maathai said in the interview late on Thursday.
"But it is also absolutely necessary to carry out this exercise with respect for the people who live there, taking time to explain to them it is in their own interests and the interests of their children and grandchildren.
"To go in there and violently evict them, burning their houses, treating them as if they were committing a crime by being in the forests, is completely unfair." Many of the farmers say they were sold or allocated land legitimately under former President Daniel arap Moi.
Living in flimsy shelters by the wayside or squatting with relatives, they still show title deeds for their former land in the fertile Rift Valley area of central Kenya.
DON'T PUNISH VICTIMS
"We all know a lot of those deeds should not have been given as forests should never have been hived off. So it was wrong, but it can be rectified," she said, proposing compensation.
"We are dealing with corruption of the past and in dealing with corruption of the past, we must not punish the victims."
Maathai is famous for a sit-in at a Nairobi park that forced Moi to abandon a plan to build there in 1998. She has been whipped, tear-gassed and clubbed unconscious in past protests.
"Unfortunately we have a culture in this country, where little people receive very little respect," she said.
"These are little people (in Mau Forest), and the same people who are deciding they should be evicted are the same people who gave instructions to issue those title deeds."
"I am quite sure that some of the people who also benefitted (from forest allocation) were the people in power. Now I haven't seen any of those people evicted."
Maathai did not share scepticism expressed by some fellow environmentalists at the G8 leaders' failure to set measurable targets for reducing greenhouse gases at last week's summit.
Rather, she welcomed the consensus achieved that global warming requires urgent action.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair "did a lot to bring some of those leaders on board whom we knew very well went to G8 without much commitment on climate and environment in general."
She added: "There may be many people who are disappointed. But for me, I am an optimist...Remember these are politicians who respond to their constituencies, their voters."
Late U.S. recognition of man's role in global warming was a good sign, she also said.
"I'm very encouraged that he (President George W. Bush) came a little closer to accepting...that a country like the United States must embrace its responsibility and leadership."