More than 60,000 people are being removed from Kenya’s Mau Forest, an area known as the country’s water tower as it stores rain during the wet seasons and pumps it out into rivers during the dry months.
The authorities want them to move out as they accuse the illegal settlers of invading the area and cutting down trees to create farmland.
Since Monday, some families have been leaving voluntarily, rather than face forceful eviction.
Thirty-one schools remained shut on the first day of term on Monday, affecting 10,000 students, as part of efforts to get the community to move.
Kenya Forest Service has been ferrying hundreds of their armed officers on trucks into the Mau forest to offer reinforcements to police officers.
Environment Minister Keriako Tobiko says it has become necessary to evict people as the region is a critical water catchment basin that has a huge influence on rain patterns.
It is also a source for seasonal and permanent rivers, like the Mara – world famous for the wildebeest that cross it during their migration into Kenya from Tanzania.
The planned eviction has been marred in controversy with some regional leaders accusing the government of failing to resolve the issue through dialogue.
The senator for the area, Kipchumba Murkomen, has urged people to stay put. But Ledama Ole Kina, another senator from the affected area, tweeted that members of his Maasai community were moving out peacefully, saying, “Finally, we can conserve Mau Forest.”
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), since independence in 1963 the forested area, known as the Mau Forest Complex, has lost almost 37% of its original area, with the greatest losses being recorded between 2001 and 2002.
The government started to carry out evictions from the Mau Forest in 2009, but the exercise came to a halt amid political divisions.