Background to the Ogiek case


Background to the Ogiek case

By: Ruth Jansen

Who are the Ogiek?

The Ogiek people are one of the last remaining forest dwellers in Kenya. They are mainly found in
Mau forest (the largest tropical forest in Kenya measuring approximately 3000 square kms)
and the forest around Mt. Elgon at the border of Uganda. They have been living in these
forests for hundreds of years, and are generally considered to have been among the first
inhabitants of what is now called Kenya.

The Ogiek number about 20.000 people. They live in groups and clans and are a cultural
entity on their own. They speak the Ogiek language and practice hunting and gathering. In
addition, they are doing a bit of land tenure. This also comprises animal tenure. The Ogieks’
main economic activity is beekeeping. The honey is taken from the hundreds of beehives that
they hide in tall trees. The money of harvested honey is used to pay school fees for the
children, but this is seldom enough. Most Ogiek are illiterate.

The origin of problems

Throughout the period of colonialism, the Ogiek people were seen as harmful and barbaric.
Subsequently, the colonial government sanctioned a series of efforts to dispossess them of
their land and exterminate, assimilate and impoverish them.

In 1933, the colonial government set up the Carter Land Commission to examine the question
of land. The Ogiek made several claims for their ancestral territories, but all of them were
rejected. Among the 42 tribes that the Carter Land Commission differentiated, the Ogiek were
not listed. They were considered ‘just a wandering people’ and thus not recognized as a
distinct tribe. From that time on, the Ogiek became squatters on their own land.

The biggest threats

Kenya’s independence came in 1963, but for the Ogiek nothing improved. The first president
Jomo Kenyatta and after him president Daniel Arap Moi (1978-2002) adopted the colonial
policy on ethnic minorities including the Ogiek. Mau forest was still considered a forest zone
and environmentally protected under the Forest Act. On the ground that they were a danger to
the environment, the Ogiek continued to be evicted from their ancestral land.

Since the 1980’s, the Kenyan government started selling parts of Mau forest to influential
people of the dominant Kenyan tribes. Their settlement on Ogiek territory continues up to this
day. Also, the government allowed logging companies to enter Mau forest. Economic factors
seem to be the biggest motive. In addition, the government allowed tea and flower plantations,
and charcoal burning in Mau forest.

As a result, Mau forest is being destructed rapidly. It is estimated to have lost up to 60 percent
of its tree cover over the last 20 years. A rich area of biodiversity is being lost. Even the rivers
that flow through Mau forest – Kenya’s largest fresh water supply – are affected. They are
slowly starting to dry up, which will have major consequences for the lakes and game
reserves in the area. Clearly not the Ogiek, but the logging companies, tea plantations,
charcoal burnings and settlers that are allowed in by the Kenyan government pose the biggest
threat to the survival of Mau forest.

Ogiek resistance

The Ogiek have a long history of resistance. During colonialism they already struggled for
land rights, but this left them only with unresolved claims. After independence, Ogiek
resistance became even stronger. New claims were made, but the presidents Jomo Kenyatta
and Daniel Arap Moi left them pending in court, as Kenyan courts are inclined to follow the
government line. When logging companies started invading Mau forest, Ogiek self help
organizations were set up (see below). The first one officially registered was ORIP (Ogiek
Rural Integral Projects), but others like OWC (Ogiek Welfare Council) decided to operate
unofficially in order to escape government control. OWC is now officially registered under
the Societies Act.

The approaches of these organizations differ slightly, but their main struggle is the same:
recognition of the Ogiek as a distinct tribe, and of their rights to their ancestral lands.

Meanwhile, they demand an immediate stop to the eviction of Ogiek from their forest. Several
Ogiek leaders sought publicity in Kenyan newspapers and abroad. Also, the support of human
rights organizations was sought.

The joined efforts resulted in more familiarity among Kenyans with the struggle of the Ogiek,
and a government that is more sensitive to their demands. President Daniel Arap Moi even
promised the Ogiek title deeds (legal right to their lands), but this promise turned out to be
empty. Up till now, the Ogiek have no legal right to their ancestral territories. Unless
legislative action is taken now, much of the forest will be lost, in which case the land will be
useless to the Ogiek.

Current situation

Two major changes in Kenya have raised hopes in the Ogiek struggle for land rights.
In 2001 the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) was formed. The
Commission has the assignment of making a new constitution for Kenya, including the
division of land. The Ogiek took the opportunity to bring their demands to the CKRC. The
process however released so many progressive as well as conservative views, that the new
constitution is not finalized yet.

The second change was the election of president Mwai Kibaki by the end of 2002. Kibaki’s
Rainbow Coalition ended 25 years of Moi’s moderate dictatorship. A more democratic
government was put in place.

The climate has never been so favorable for change. If the new Kenyan government is put
under enough (international) pressure to agree to the demands of the Ogiek, there is still a
chance. The Ogiek should get their legal rights over their ancestral lands, before the forest is

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