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UN Chief Condemns The Beating Of Ecologist

By Philip Ngunjiri

NAIROBI, Jan 11 (IPS) - UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has condemned the beating of Kenyan ecologist, Wangare Maathai, by security guards as they tried to replant trees at Karura Forest, near the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

Maathai, who suffered serious head injuries, is recuperating at a Nairobi hospital.

The incident happened on Jan 8 when a group of protesters led by the ecologist, who sits on Annan's Advisory Board on Disarmament, were whipped and beaten in the forest, which is fast being encroached on by unidentified real estate developers, politicians and senior government officials.

The protesters, estimated about 20, were beaten by more than 200 guards, some of who were armed with bows and arrows, swords, clubs, metal bars and stones.

Among the injured were three opposition legislators, two German environmentalists, as well as a number of local and foreign journalists.

Maathai, winner of the UN Environmental Programme (UNDP)'s 'Global 500 Award', was treated for a deep cut on the back of her head, which needed four stitches. According to her doctor, Daniel Gikonyo, the wound was caused by a blunt object, probably a truncheon.

''She will need to be kept in the hospital under observation for two or three days, because she has lost a lot of blood,'' said the doctor.

In a statement made available to IPS on Monday, Annan urged the Kenyan authorities to take appropriate action against those responsible for the attack.

''The Secretary-General has learned with concern that Professor Wangari Maathai, a member of his Advisory Board on Disarmament and Coordinator of the Green Belt Movement, was hospitalised after being the subject of violence,'' said the statement issued from Annan's office.

Karura Forest, situated north of Nairobi, is a gazetted reserve, covering more than 1000 hectares. Since mid last year, the forest has been the centre of controversy as government officials and politicians resell the land they have ''grabbed'' to private real estate developers.

The Executive Director of UNEP, Klaus Toepfer, said he was appalled by the treatment of the protesters at the forest which borders UNEP's headquaters in Nairobi. ''Violence and intimidation was not the way to deal with sensitive environmental issue like Karura which must be handled by a process of dialogue and cooperation,'' he said.

Toepfer has written to Kenya's Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, Francis Nyenze, to express his concern. The UNEP chief says Karura Forest is precious natural resource which the city of Nairobi cannot afford to lose. ''The destruction of the forest which also serves as an important ''lung'' for the city, helping to clear the air of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, must stop, as the loss of this valuable ecosystem will have serious environmental implication.''

This is not the first time that the controversial ecologist has locked horns with the real estate developers over the forest. In October, Maathai, accompanied by several opposition legislators and supporters ''successfully'' destroyed building equipments worth 40 millions shillings.

One US Dollar is equal to 60 Kenya shillings.

Last month, Maathai and her supporters, were turned away by a dozen riot policemen from the forest's vicinity. But she has vowed to go ahead with her project and has so far, managed to replant more than 15,000 seedlings.

Mathai came into the limelight in the early 1980s when she mobilised Kenyans to protest a 60-storey building that was to be built in Nairobi's Uhuru Park.

Addressing journalists from her hospital bed, Maathai said she would meet Kenya's Chief Justice, Zacchaeus Chesoni, over the incident this week. ''Together with my supporters I will seek Chesoni's intervention in the removal of the guards, hiding under illegal court orders to frustrate my tree planting expeditions, from the Karura forest,'' she said in a letter to the Chief Justice.

Kenya's Catholic Church also has condemned the incident. Father Lawrence Njoroge, who is secretary to the Catholic archbishop, Ndingi Mwana a' Nzeki, said the law should be applied fairly to protect every Kenyan.

''If Maathari was breaking the law,'' he said, ''she should have been arrested and prosecuted according to the law of the country.''(END/IPS/pn/99)