Kenya's Ogiek people forced from homes amid 'colonial approach to conservation'

Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

They came without warning, forcing people from their homes with no time to collect their possessions. A deaf old man was attacked when he didn’t hear the orders to leave. Then the houses were burned to the ground.

More than 200 families, all from the indigenous Ogiek minority, were evicted from their homes on the slopes of Mount Elgon in western Kenya by a force of about 50 police and Kenya Forest Service (KFS) rangers in June. “They were armed,” says Peter Kitelo, an Ogiek activist.

While some people found refuge with friends and family, or have been able to build shelters, many still have only trees for cover. “We are really cold. There is no food, there [are] no blankets, there is no shelter,” says Cosmas Murunga, 68, who fled his home with 10 family members as it was set on fire.

About 80,000 Ogiek live close to the border with Uganda and in the Mau forest, roughly 140 miles to the south-east, according to Kenya’s 2009 census (pdf). Both communities of hunter-gatherers have experienced multiple evictions since the British colonial authorities expelled them in the 1930s to make way for forest reserves and white settlers.

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The Ogiek believe a huge area, stretching from the Ugandan border through a national park created in 1968, and down into farmland below the forest, is their ancestral land. They have been negotiating with the local government on an out-of-court settlement, after it recognised that land turned into the Cheptikale game reserve in 2000 should be community-owned. Since those discussions began in 2012 the Ogiek have been allowed to live undisturbed on the land.

But the boundary between the 17,000-hectare (42,000-acre) reserve and KFS-controlled land has never been made fully clear, says Justin Kenrick of the Forest Peoples Programme, an NGO that has been working with the Ogiek.

Kenya’s 2010 constitution protects indigenous rights to land, but the community land bill that is meant to put these into law is yet to be passed by parliament.

“[Ogiek] rights have been brutalised,” says Esther Mwangi, a scientist at the Centre for International Forestry Research. “A lot of this happens because of the lack of political power and influence.”

Things had been looking up for the Ogiek of Mount Elgon. They have written bylaws to ensure protection of the forest – which have been shared with government agencies, as part of their fight to convince the authorities that they had coexisted with the forest and its wildlife for centuries. They were also working with the KFS and Kenya Wildlife Service to hand over poachers and illegal charcoal burners. Five Ogiek scouts were being trained by the government to carry out arrests.

But a great deal of destruction is evident in the forest reserve that borders Mount Elgon national park. Entire hillsides have been stripped of trees to make way for maize farming.

While some of the deforestation is due to charcoal burning, much of it has been KFS-sanctioned. The agency is allowed to rent some forest land to farmers under the plantation establishment and livelihood improvement scheme (pdf). But this is only meant to take place in areas where tree seedlings are being regrown (pdf). Kitelo claims trees are not being replanted and that farming is covering about 30,000 hectares, three times the area it is supposed to cover. Meanwhile, the KFS maintains that conservation requires the forest to be uninhabited.

“There was no one living there,” says Alex Lemarkoko, the KFS’s head of enforcement, who claims that in June his team were only “clearing” the area of livestock herders. “In terms of evictions – no we have not done evictions.”

Lemarkoko also denied the existence of villages on the moors above the forest. “It is too high, people cannot live there – they don’t live there,” he says. “Hunting and gathering is a primitive practice, it doesn’t happen in Kenya.”