Kenyan greens file suit to stop forest clearance
The government said last month it would clear 170,000 acres (69,000 hectares) of woodland to house landless squatters, despite criticism from activists who say the policy is aimed at winning support ahead of next year's elections.
"It's a matter of life and death for this country, we are extremely worried," said Wangari Maathai, head of the Green Belt Movement advocacy group.
"The Kenyan forests are facing extinction and it is a man-made problem," she told reporters outside Kenya's High Court in the capital Nairobi.
Previous attempts by the Green Belt Movement to challenge the plan, which was first announced in February, have made little headway. Lawyers complain that their suits have been dismissed on technical grounds or files mysteriously lost.
The Green Belt Movement says politicians in the ruling KANU party will sell the land to finance its campaign at general elections due next year, or distribute it to win the support of local leaders at the polls.
Environment ministry officials were not immediately available for comment.
The latest suit seeks to prevent the government clearing any forest land until January 16, the date when an earlier legal challenge by the Green Belt Movement to the plan is due to be heard in the High Court.
Environmentalists say felling swathes of woodland will wreak irreparable damage on Kenya's ecosystem, destroying vital water catchment areas that sustain Kenya's backbone farming and hydroelectric power sectors.
The forests act like giant sponges, soaking up moisture during the rainy season then slowly releasing it to keep rivers flowing to towns, villages and coffee-and tea-growing areas.
Environmentalists estimate that British colonialists and Kenyan farmers have cleared about three quarters of woodlands in the last 150 years, leaving about two percent of Kenya's land area under forest cover.