The two motorbikes speed along the long stretch of Chilibasi-Mackinnon road. The distance makes them look like a pair of black dots shimmering in the midday mirage. In their wake, a thick cloud of dust rises. It lingers in the air like a grey curtain.
Even from that distance, the agonized wails of engines in distress serve as warning to any road user to steer clear of the fast-approaching motorbikes. When they zoom past at a breakneck speed, one sees a blur of upright bodies fortified under thick jackets and heads hidden behind dark crash helmets. Strapped on the backseat of each bike are five fully-loaded sacks of charcoal. The sacks are expertly balanced for stability. Then they are gone; leaving a choking dust swirling behind.
“That is the business that is killing our conservation efforts in the ranch,” says Mr. Charles Mwaiseghe, secretary to the Board of Directors of the Kabanga Ranch Limited.
The illegal charcoal business along the busy Nairobi-Mombasa Highway has led to a tree-poaching craze targeting ranches at the border of Kwale and Taita-Taveta counties in what officials have said critically threatens conservation efforts.
In Kabanga ranch, ranch officials estimate over four thousand acres of bush land have been decimated out of the total 35,000-acre.
While several ranches including government-owned ADC Bachuma have reported cases of tree-felling and illegal charcoal trade which has led to significant deforestation, Mr. Mwaiseghe says Kabanga Ranch has endured a lot more degradation.
He says the main culprits of this environmental carnage are hundreds of illegal squatters living in the ranch. Being illegal residents gives them unfettered access to trees resulting in a near-environmental catastrophe. They have also been engaging in wanton small-game hunting.
Mr. Mwaiseghe is candid. “It is the squatters in the ranch who have contributed to this degradation. They have poached small game to near extinction too. We cannot advocate for conservation and livelihood empowerment for our members if such destructive activities are allowed to thrive,” Mwaiseghe says.
Mr. Charles Kuria, EcoSystem Conservator in Taita-Taveta County, says the government has increased up efforts to end charcoal business in the ranches. He adds that intensified patrols and seizing of charcoal cargo has seen the illicit trade drop significantly.
“We are working closely with ranches and other security agencies to eliminate this business,” Kuria said.
Mr. Mwaiseghe says the squatter issue at Kabanga Ranch is an old problem. It dates back to 1973 when the ranch was first established. Back then, only a few squatters had settled in and this did not raise eyebrows, as they never engaged in environmental degradation of the scale seen currently.
In the 70’s, the ranch was under developed. Vast areas lay idle and underutilized. The ranch had no management plans and absence of land-use strategies.
By 1990, the number of squatters had surged significantly to warrant concerns from ranch officials. The concerns morphed into disbelief after the government under unclear circumstances put up a public primary school inside the ranch to serve hundreds of squatters’ children. Other public infrastructure put up in the ranch include a health center and borehole by the county government. The ranch views such acts as encouraging the squatting practices.
“We don’t know how a public school came to sit on a land with a title deed. As holders of the title deed, we never had any engagement with the Ministry of Education on how a public learning institution came to be built here without our consent,” Mwaiseghe said.
However, it was not until the ranch formulated the first strategic plan in 2019 to help maximize on the benefits that the officials realized the full potential of the idle land.
Ms. Beatrice Mshai, a director, says that the five-year strategic plan outlined specific steps the ranch can take to exploit economic benefits from environmental conservation, livestock husbandry, tourism and wildlife activities. The need for conservation was further entrenched after the ranch joined a group of 27 other ranches to form the consortium of Taita-Taveta Wildlife Conservancies Association.
“We embraced conservation and shifted the focus on eco-friendly activities to reap benefits from our new approach. However, the squatters have become a menace to our efforts,” she said.
Efforts to address the squatting menace have not yielded any fruits. The board says it has tried engaging the squatters to resolve issues of illegal settlement but their efforts have come a cropper.
It was during the Annual General Meeting early this year that ranch members passed a resolution to permanently evict the squatters from the land. This was the first conclusive decision towards dealing with squatters’ challenge at Kabanga.
“We have already given them a 90-day notice to move. We plan to plant over one million trees in the degraded areas after they leave,” he said.
The eviction notice has sent shockwaves through the region with looming uncertainty on what it portends to the future of hundreds of squatters who claim to have lived in the land since the 1970s.
Mr. Charo Mbofa, a squatter staring at eviction, argues that the government recognizes their settlement evidenced by the school built for their children. He adds that they have lived in the village for over four decades and needed to be recognized as genuine residents and not squatters.
“We have lived here all our lives. We have nowhere else to go,” he says.
Groups of human rights defenders have started collecting signatures from the squatters to formulate a petition that will block the eviction orders. However, the ranch officials insist that the title deed gives them absolute right over the land.
“We have the title deed. They will try to oppose and they know they are in our land. We need to get back the land and stop this wanton destruction of trees and poaching,” says Mwaiseghe.
Local political leaders have called for calm and amicable resolution of the problem. County Executive Committee Member for land Mwandawiro Mghanga says the settlers in that land are not squatters as they had settled long before the ranch came into existence. He adds that the ranch must first recognize the rights of the locals noting that any stalemate would force the county to evoke the act of adverse possession.
“They ranch found the community already settled. We are pushing for an amicable resolution because the government has invested in that land. We will find a common ground to avoid a crisis,” Mghanga said