Kenya: Indigenous Ogiek face eviction from their ancestral forest... again

NAKURU COUNTY, Kenya — Caroline Chepkoeh looked around her idyllic property, perched on a hilltop surrounded by green maize fields as far as the eye can see. A storm front was approaching from the north and the wind swayed the corn stalks and trees alike. The 34-year-old mother of three was bundled up in her winter coat. It’s colder here, she said, and it’s too far to school. Her two youngest children haven’t started nursery school yet because of the distance. “I still have hope that we will return to our land,” she said.

Her hope is in the hands of a judge at the High Court of Kenya in Nakuru county, in the highlands of southwestern Kenya. The judge will determine whether Chepkoeh and her family were illegally evicted from their home on the edge of the Mau Forest Complex, the largest montane forest in East Africa. This situation is not uncommon in Chepkoeh’s community; she is an Ogiek, an indigenous group whose members have experienced a dizzying number of evictions from their ancestral homeland in the Mau Forest since the beginning of British colonial rule.

Chepkoeh said she will never forget the most recent eviction. One morning in March, 2016,around 8 a.m., a group of uniformed police officers arrived on her property unannounced, armed with guns. By her account, the police started looting her property and beating her dogs, then doused the houses in gasoline and burned them to the ground. The surrounding community of Isinget, home to some 70 Ogiek families, faced a similar fate. One person was killed during evictions that month and hundreds were made homeless, according to human rights groups.

Chepkoeh and her family were fortunate to have another small plot of land in the area to which they could retreat. But they pray that it’s a temporary resettlement. “It was difficult to move to a new place and start from scratch,” she said.

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.

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.”

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.

Every week, Daniel Barkurie Prengei, 40, and Dickson Kitanga, 47, put their safety on the line for the health of the forest — and receive no pay in return. Prengei and Kitanga are scouts trained by the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program. Twice a week, they spend the day patrolling their section of the Mau Forest Complex looking for the kind of illegal activities that have put the forest at risk: charcoal production and illegal logging. Unarmed and dressed in dark green khaki pants and sweaters, Kitanga and Prengei scour this indigenous forest with knowledge that comes from decades of experience.

At intervals while navigating the maze of vegetation on a recent patrol, they pointed high into the canopy where they’d constructed beehives to produce honey. Some of the hives sit more than 30 meters (100 feet) above the ground, with precious few branches to cling to; dealing with a swarm of bees that high in the air surely takes tremendous skill. No more than 30 minutes into the patrol, Kitanga stopped and scanned a group of trees on the other side of a stream. “Look, there’s smoke over there,” he said.

As they approached the site, the sweet smell of burning cedar filled the air. Crouching, they neared the scene with caution. It would take time before Kenya Forest Service rangers could arrive to deal with any aggressors. Confident there was no one around, they finally drew up to the charcoal kilns. Smoldering mounds of dirt covered logs the length of a motorcycle. Without wasting a minute, Kitanga and Prengei started breaking apart the charcoal production. It’s unglamorous work; smoke billowed into their faces and the wood was hot to the touch. Satisfied that the burning logs would turn to ash instead of charcoal, they wiped the sweat from their faces before heading off into the forest once more. “It’s painful for me to see a tree cut down because it affects other life around it,” Prengei said.

Both Kitanga and Prengei grew up in the forest. Their fathers taught them about the medicines that abound there, how to set traps for animals — now an illegal practice — and which trees to cut. They said the other communities that arrived in the area relatively recently were not as well versed in forest management. They don’t realize the harm charcoal producing does to the forest, Prengei said. “We want to protect the forest for future generations,” he said. “I want my children to grow up and find the forest the way it is now.”

However, activists and government officials alike acknowledge that the Ogiek are not immune to practices that destroy the forest. They farm and cut trees for a quick profit like other communities. “Over time their traditional way of life has changed,” states a 2018 report from Kenya’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry, referring to the Ogiek. “Their livelihood activities now include livestock grazing and food crop production that are not compatible with forest conservation.”

But Kobei, from the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program, said few Ogiek make their living as the report describes — most maintain a more or less traditional way of life — and that any unsustainable practices were picked up from other communities. If the forest were left to the protection of the Ogiek, Kobei said, they would only farm outside the forest and practice sustainable industries inside, like beekeeping.

Franiz Maritim, a middle-age Ogiek, has kept bees his entire life. His business is prolific, with over 1,000 hives spread in neat rows near his home and numerous others scattered throughout the forest nearby. Some of the long cylindrical hives are built on wooden beams, while others are constructed the traditional way, placed high in a tree. Maritim said one hive could produce up to 54 kilograms (120 pounds) of honey every year. Without a proper education or job prospects, Maritim said he started beekeeping as his only option. “Everything we own comes from the forest,” he said. With the money from selling honey, “I educated my children.”

Maritim’s children are well-versed in the beekeeping business, as well. Each child is responsible for a number of hives — his youngest, age 7, manages three. Approaching the beehive, the eldest child present handles a bundle of grass that he’s set on fire. He blows smoke from the burning vegetation into the beehive to disorient the bees and make them less aggressive. Next, the boys reach their hands into the beehive and pull out laptop-size chunks of honeycomb, bees still clinging to them. With a smooth swipe of the hand, they wipe the bees off the honeycomb and take a satisfied bite. The bees swarm, occasionally stinging the boys, who remain completely unfazed. The key is to remain calm, Maritim said. (Easier said than done.) If you run or swat at the bees, they’ll become more aggressive. Maritim said his father used to beat him if he ran away.

Surrounding Maritim’s house lie seemingly endless crop fields, save the small patch of forest where his bees live. Maritim’s house is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) outside the forest; he’s lived there ever since his family was evicted when he was a child. He used to set traps to catch antelope in the area, but they are few and far between these days. According to the report from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, an intensive study conducted in 2016 found “no sign of large mammals” in 17 of 22 forest blocks in the Mau Forest Complex. The area is home to the critically endangered mountain bongo antelope (Tragelaphus eurycerusssp. Isaaci), of which there are fewer than 100 individuals in the world (all in Kenya). Of the six remaining groups of mountain bongo in the Mau Forest Complex, two disappeared in the last two years. Maritim says he used to be able to hear the unmistakable scream of the hyrax, a small mammal. But he hasn’t heard it in years.

These days, Maritim’s father, Paul Maritim Chumo, now 86, still loves going into the Mau Forest. But he wishes he could live much closer; it makes him feel more at peace. Maritim says various trees his father and grandfather used to consider sacred have now been cut down. Chumo has experienced a succession of evictions dating back to colonial times.

“You see the age of the old man,” said Maritim, gesturing to his father. But he is in good health, he said. “The only problem he has is home.”

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