The Ogiek face eviction from their
ancestral forest homelands. James Astill on a threat with
disastrous implications for Kenya's environment
Wednesday March 13, 2002
On a wasted slope of the Great Rift
Valley, littered with charred and jagged tree-stumps, stands a
lone clump of cedars. Rising up through the boughs, a wisp of
smoke shows where Julius Sitonik has his mud hut. For a forest
dweller, he is easy to find.
At first light, Julius, 36, sets
off up-hill, with bow and arrows, a couple of lean curs and,
occasionally, a barrel-shaped beehive on his back. It is a long
walk to the remnants of Kenya's Mau Forest, the ancestral home of
the Ogiek hunter-gatherer people. Julius keeps mostly to his old
forest trails - snaking laboriously between the stumps, under
unfamiliar open skies.
In the few years since illegal
loggers cut the forest around Julius's homestead, his morning walk
has been getting longer - and the honey he harvests at the end of
it has been getting scarcer. Recently, he broke with Ogiek
tradition and began grazing a few sheep. Now, he and the rest of
the 20,000 Ogiek face being evicted and dispersed, destitute.
After 23 years of ruinously
kleptocratic rule, President Daniel arap Moi's regime has little
left to offer its supporters - "politically correct
people", as Kenyans call them - except protected areas. With
an election looming, the government has announced plans to parcel
out swaths of forest land. And the insignificant Ogiek are
"Whenever the government is
fighting for survival, it starts allocating our land for votes,"
says Joseph Kiprotich Sang, secretary of the Ogiek Welfare Council
(OWC). "That is what it is doing now."
The strategy helped the government
win victory in two previous elections - with Moi alleged to have
personally handed out 700 fraudulent title deeds in 1997 to
members of his Kalenjin ethnic group. This year, the proposed
plunder is on a massive scale: 167,000 acres of protected forests
are to be handed out, including nearly 150,000 acres of the Mau.
According to government figures, up to 50,000 squatters, most of
them Kalenjin, are queueing up to acquire title deeds there. For
the Ogiek and their unique way of life, the excision would be the
death blow. For Kenya's environment, it could spell disaster.
"Late last year, there was a
massive influx of foreigners as the government secretly began
allocating land," says Sang, referring to members of the
Kalenjin. "For us, the history of Kenya has been of suffering,
but now is the worst time. We will be assimilated or evicted; we
will be made extinct." And with this small tribe,
environmentalists say, goes the fate of the nation.
Kenya is mostly arid or semi-arid,
and its water flows from a handful of wooded catchment areas. The
forests regulate the supply, sponging up water during the rainy
season and slowly releasing it during the dry season. It is a
perilously balanced ecology. Experts say 10% tree cover is needed
for a regular water supply; Kenya has only 1.7%.
In the Mau Forest, which supplies
about 40% of Kenya with water, effects of state-sponsored
deforestation are evident. Five of the six major rivers flowing
into the Rift Valley have become seasonal in the past few years -
running in spate and then running dry - and one, the Makhalia, has
dried up completely. With the country slowly recovering from a
three-year drought, and 2.5 million Kenyans living on western food
aid, further deforestation would be suicidal.
"These excisions would be a
national catastrophe," says Wangari Maathai, of the Green
Belt Movement. "Already we are in the danger zone. Any more,
and we would be inviting Ethiopian-style famine to Kenya."
The government's proposals are
illegal. But in a country where the rule of law is a fading memory,
that need be no obstacle. In 1997, for example, Kenya's high court
ruled that the eastern Mau Forest must not be reallocated until
the question of Ogiek land rights is resolved. This was not a case
the government could afford to lose, so it has not been heard, and
the court order stands. But when the Ogiek sued the government for
contempt last month, the state council simply failed to turn up.
The case was adjourned.
"If there was any respect for
the rule of law, the eastern Mau would be left alone," said
Kathurima Minoti, the Ogiek's lawyer. "It's extremely frus
trating, but the people you expect to be upholding the court's
order are the same ones ordering the excisions."
They are also the same people
profiting by them, directly as well as indirectly. Official
records reveal, for example, that the president requested 2,000
acres of the Mau for a tea plantation. Meanwhile, according to the
respected Daily Nation newspaper, the reason that Pan Africa, one
of three companies illegally felling the Mau, was made exempt from
the law was because "the government has shares in it and it
is important to the economy".
Julius has a neat take on this
topsy- turvy world, where degradation is called development.
"They did this because of conservation," he says,
surveying the scarred hillside.
It is a telling indictment of early
colonial policy, which first separated the forest from its age-old
custodians. After handing out good land to white settlers, the
British administration registered Kenya's tribes and settled them
on reserves, with the Kalenjin north of the Mau, and the Maasai to
the south. But, in an effort to protect the forest, the Ogiek -
then known by their derogatory Maasai name "Dorobo" or
"paupers" - were ignored. Chillingly, the colonial power
decreed that the "overall solution" to the "Dorobo
problem", would be "to evict them from the Mau, and
assimilate them into neighbouring tribes".
So the Ogiek were forced from the
forest, and branded trespassers when they returned. Ever since,
they have been outlawed and periodically evicted. Their wattle
huts and bee-hives have been torched, and their schools and
clinics closed. Consequently, 80% of Ogiek are illiterate - the
highest rate in Kenya - and there is no doctor for the 6,000
people living in the eastern Mau.
The last time one of numerous Ogiek
law suits was allowed to go the distance was in 1999. First, the
court invited the Catholic Church to add its name to the Ogiek's
appeal against eviction, to protect the churches it had built for
them. Then, two judges found that this proved the Ogiek had
renounced their ancient traditions, and had thereby forfeited
their land rights. "The eviction is for the purposes of
saving the whole of Kenya from a possible environmental disaster
and it is being carried out for the common good," the court
Law scholars have marvelled at this
trickery. Meanwhile, as the real environmental disaster unfolds,
more and more Ogiek are being forced to renounce their traditions.
But not all. According to Aina Sering, an anthropologist from
Rostock University, Germany, who recently emerged from a two-year
stay in the Mau, around 500 Ogiek are still hunting and gathering.
"These traditionalists are living in a perfectly harmonious
relationship with their natural environment," says Sering.
"They have no use for individual title deeds. All they want
is to be left in peace in their ancestral homeland."
At Iloprik, on the forest's edge,
Topiko Minjil, 37, is living that life, almost unchanged. Last
year, he began farming an acre of maize to supple ment his
hunter-gathering. But, not knowing how to cultivate, he pays for a
labourer with the honey he harvests.
Topiko is both exploiter and
conservator. The tree-hyraxes and small antelope he hunts with
arrow and spear reproduce quickly; and when he has killed enough
for his family, he stops. The hives he hauls high up into the tree
canopy encourage swarms of bees to pollinate the forest blossoms.
In his traditional life, Topiko was the Mau's gamekeeper. By
clearing the forest to plant maize, he has turned poacher.
"I have to farm to get money
to educate my children," he insists. In fact, the maize that
is ripening in his field will be worth almost nothing. Kenya has
had a bumper maize harvest this year, and the market has collapsed.
"We are not only being
dispossessed of our ancestral lands, our livelihood is being
killed," said Joseph Towett, head of the OWC. "They say
our way of life is no good, that we must be developed. But tell me,
where is this development?"
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