Indigenous Ogiek face eviction from their ancestral forest… again

Some 15,000 Ogiek live in the Mau Forest Complex, where they are traditionally hunter-gatherers. These days, they keep bees and tend farms as well. The Ogiek, like other indigenous groups in Kenya such as the Sengwer, have been vulnerable to evictions because they don’t have title deeds for the land they occupy, although they’ve been there for generations. So it was easy for the government to classify the Ogiek as squatters in the forest, which is not only a critical water catchment but also highly profitable land for forestry and agriculture businesses. Other communities that live within the forest, but that arrived much more recently, are also facing evictions. But in 2017, after more than 20 years of bouncing around Kenyan and international courts, the Ogiek won a landmark victory in the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, based in Arusha, Tanzania. The court ruled that the Kenyan government had violated the Ogiek’s right to their ancestral land by evicting them.

“The process was not easy,” said Daniel Kobei, executive director of the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program, a nonprofit advocacy group that was a key sponsor of the case. “When we got it, we were jubilant.”

Activists and community members like Kobei are hopeful the ruling will spark change. However, there are signs that the Kenyan government may be backing down from its pledge to support the court’s decision, and there is no robust mechanism of enforcement.In July, government officials called for the eviction of all communities encroaching on the southwest section of forest, the Maasai Mau, renewing fear that the Ogiek will once again be targeted. “There is an imminent plan to evict Ogiek in parts [of the forest],” said Kobei. The Ogiek’s plan: wait and see.

Video by Nathan Siegel/Mongabay.

The Mau Forest Complex covers about 2,700 square kilometers (1,000 square miles) in western Kenya. It is the main water catchment area for a dozen rivers that drain into Lake Victoria, whose surroundings are home to 30 million people, and Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake on Earth, among a handful of other major lakes in Kenya. But in the last few decades, human encroachment for agriculture, charcoal and logging has dramatically reshaped the forest. From 1986 to 2000, forest cover declined by about 19 percent, according to a 2011 report from Kenyatta University.

The changing use of land in the forest is reducing the recharge of groundwater systems, increasing the risk of flooding and soil erosion, sending more sediment into nearby lakes and curtailing habitat and biodiversity. The study’s authors state that “over three decades of negligence and improper land use management” has allowed the environmental state of the Mau Forest Complex to reach “crisis levels.” This sentiment is shared by locals as well; Kobei called the condition of the forest “pathetic.”

An Ogiek family’s house inside the Mau Forest Complex. Police officers and civilians allegedly destroyed it during an eviction of Ogiek from the forest. Image courtesy of the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program.
Daniel Kobei, executive director of the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program, poses for a portrait in the OPDP office in Nakuru, Kenya. Image by Nathan Siegel for Mongabay.
Daniel Kobei, executive director of the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program, poses for a portrait in the OPDP office in Nakuru, Kenya. Image by Nathan Siegel for Mongabay.

In response to outcry at home and abroad concerning the degradation of the Mau Forest Complex, the government set up a task force in 2008 to look into the issue. One of its outcomes was to set up a so-called cutline, a 24-kilometer-wide (15-mile) buffer zone that separates human settlements from the forest. In recent weeks, the government has evicted 9,000 people in the Maasai Mau for living within or beyond the cutline, and it is threatening 40,000 more with eviction, according to local news reports. (Kobei said no Ogiek have been affected so far.)

“Let us not kill our people in the name of conserving the environment,” Sylvanus Maritim, a member of parliament from Kericho county, where the evictions are taking place, told the Daily Nation.“The future of many young people whose education has been cut short is at stake.”

Neither the task force nor the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, which appointed it, responded to requests for comment for this story.

Many Ogiek say they support the eviction of other communities to protect the forest. However, they believe they should be spared because they have a vested interest in keeping the forest safe since their livelihoods depend on its well-being and it is their ancestral homeland.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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