Archive 2002


Tribal trials

The Ogiek face eviction from their ancestral forest homelands. James Astill on a threat with disastrous implications for Kenya's environment

James Astill

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 politically incorrect.

"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 ruled.

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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