Kenyan Indigenous Group Faces
October 1 Court Date
Sunday, September 1, 2002
On October 1, an indigenous group
living in Kenya's Mau Forest is scheduled to have its case heard
in the country's High Court. The hearing is the latest attempt by
the Ogiek people's long effort to protect their forest homeland
For decades, the Ogiek
have fought first with the British colonial and then the Kenyan
government to live peacefully in the Mau Forest, where they have
lived for hundreds of years. The Ogiek's current lawsuit dates
back to a 1997 case, when the group went to court to stop the
Kenyan government from surveying and allocating Mau Forest land to
others. Later that year, the High Court ordered that no Mau Forest
land would be allocated to settlers until all issues related to it
were resolved in court. But after years of threatening to evict
the Ogiek from the Mau Forest, the government announced in 2001 it
would degazette 147,000 acres of the forest. Degazetting the land
would eliminate its environmentally protected status and allow
settlers from other parts of Kenya to move in. The Ogiek then sued,
charging the government was ignoring the 1997 High Court order
since the Ogiek's earlier lawsuit had not yet been resolved.
plans threaten both the Ogiek and the Mau Forest, one of the
largest water complexes in East Africa. Experts say that reducing
Kenya's forestland would have dangerous environmental consequences.
The Mau Forest is a vital water catchment area, absorbing water
during the rainy season and gradually releasing it during the rest
of the year. According to scientists, the forest provides about 40
percent of the nation's water supply. While the Ogiek's way of
life is self-sustaining, the government has exempted three
powerful companies from a logging ban and allowed them to continue
harvesting wood in Mau Forest, destroying the Ogiek ecosystem in
which the indigenous group gathers honey, selectively hunts
animals, and grows vegetables.
Although they agree
with the government that Kenya lacks sufficient agricultural land,
Ogiek supporters argue that President Daniel arap Moi is more
interested in rewarding its supporters than providing more food
for its citizens and that most of the land has been given to Moi's
close associates. Joseph Kamotho, the recently dismissed minister
for environment who has fallen out with Moi, says the Ogiek land
issue was used by "unscrupulous government officials to get
more land for themselves."
As the gradual
destruction of its forest continues, the community has faced no
justice in court corridors. For over a year, the Ogiek's case has
been repeatedly delayed in court due to procedural problems. In
February, the case was postponed because the government lawyer
handling the case was out of the country. In April, it was again
rescheduled after government lawyers said that they had not had
time to file their replying affidavits. In July, the judge
scheduled to hear the case was absent, and a substitute judge set
a hearing for October. Ogiek advocates hope that these frequent
delays will end soon, but so far the government has given no
indication that it wants to resolve the case quickly.
Many observers believe
that changes in Kenyan politics in the next few months may help
the Ogiek's legal case to move forward. Kenyan law prohibits Moi
from running for office in the upcoming presidential elections,
currently scheduled for December. "The post-Moi Kenya will be
different and the Ogiek cases may finally be heard after elections,"
said John Kamau of Rights Features Service, a Kenyan-based
organization that has been monitoring the Ogiek's case. "At
that time Moi will not be in power to protect his cronies, unless
he does so by proxy."
In addition, draft
proposals for a new Kenyan constitution should help the Ogiek.
Kamau pointed out that the draft of the new constitution also
calls for new laws on land and the protection of indigenous
communities from discrimination. "If the Constitution is
adopted, then the Ogiek can sigh with relief," Kamau said.
"But a lot needs to be done to sensitize politicians on the
issues at hand." The draft, which needs to be approved by
parliament, would also create a new position of prime minister
that would be elected by the national assembly. The president, who
now has almost exclusive control over government policy, would be
limited to carrying out "special responsibilities" in
such areas as national unity. By reducing the president's powers,
the draft would make it more difficult for Moi's successor to stop
the Ogiek's case.
A number of Kenyan and
international groups - including ECOTERRA Intl., the Ogiek Welfare
Council, Survival International, and the Revitalise server - have
maintained an international campaign to protect the Mau Forest and
the Ogiek's way of life. The campaign's Web site (www.ogiek.org)
contains news and other information about the Ogiek.