In Kenya, environmentalists have suffered a setback in their legal fight to prevent the government from cutting down some of the country's forests. A court has mislaid documents the environmentalists had filed to stop the logging.

The Kenyan government is facing three court cases, seeking to prevent it from cutting down more than 170,000 acres of public forest.

The government says the cleared land will be allocated to squatters, but environmentalists doubt this will happen. They say the land will likely be given to government supporters. They also say the logging will devastate the environment by increasing desertification.

An environmental lobby group called the Green Belt Movement is one of those challenging the government. It has been waiting more than three months to get a date for a court to hear its case.

The head of the Green Belt Movement, Wangari Maathai, says the group's case is being delayed because it has disappeared; the court has lost it. "When the judges came back from recess and our lawyers tried to get a date so that we could appear before the judge, our file went missing in the registry," she said. "It's a very big document. This is not the kind of document that suddenly disappears. We take that very seriously."

As the environmentalists wait for their case to be heard, the government is taking all the steps necessary to begin logging. Last week, Environment Minister Noah Ngala signed an order authorizing the logging of the forests.

Ms. Maathai charges the government is acting illegally, as it has not carried out an environmental impact assessment. "Our environment is managed under the new law called Environment and Management Co-ordination Act of 1999," said Ms. Maathai. "The minister is required by this law to have an environmental impact assessment before any action is done. No environmental impact assessment has been done by the minister to give him the go ahead with the proposed excision. As far as we are concerned, whatever the minister is saying he'll do, he is doing so illegally."

The government has not explained why it has not issued an environmental impact statement, but lack of such an explanation is not unusual in cases of this kind.

Meanwhile, the Kenyan press reports that the government has signed a document indicating it plans to cut down another 15,000 hectares of forests. An editorial in the Sunday Nation accuses the government of, quote, threatening the heritage, future and economic welfare of the nation in defiance of public opinion. It suggests all decisions concerning public land be shelved until there is a national consensus.

More than 30,000 people have signed a petition objecting to the destruction of the forests.