Kenyan community displaced by nature reserve seeks justice
Jeremy Hance,
September 22, 2008

Lake Bogoria is a fascinating nature reserve in Kenya’s Rift Valley. Set in a strange arid landscape, the lake attracts tens of thousands of flamingos. The multitudes of bright pink birds contrast with the grayish-blue landscape. The lake itself is shallow and saline; boiling hot springs and geysers can be found along its western shore. Fish eagles and marabou storks haunt the waters, seeking out flamingo for dinner. Antelope, even the greater kudu, can sometimes be seen, while hyraxes make their homes in the surrounding bare rock. However, the strange beauty of this reserve comes with a grim reality not shown to tourists.

For centuries the Endorois people lived as pastoralists, raising cattle and bees, near the shores of Lake Bogoria. Frequently they migrated between Lake Bogoria and Monchongoi Forest, about 45 kilometers apart. In 1974 after a portion of their traditional lands was designated the Lake Bogoria Nature Reserve, the Endorois people were evicted to a small parcel of semi-arid land on their migration route. They became what is known as conservation refugees.

Usually when we hear the term “refugee,” we think of conflict, famine, or, increasingly, climate change. But conservation has created its own form of refugees: people forced from their homelands for the establishment of a reserve or park.

Endorois woman. Photo courtesy of MRG
“The Endorois have practiced a sustainable way of life on the shores of Lake Bogoria and in the Monchongoi forest for centuries,” says Emma Eastwood from Minority Rights Group International (MRG), which is currently running a campaign to aid the Endorois people in achieving more recognition and ultimately a better life from Kenya’s government. “They assert that these are their ancestral lands and claim their right to the land as a collective and not as individuals. They are seen by many to be the trustees of the land for future generations.”

Promised appropriate compensation and 25 percent of the proceeds from the Lake Bogoria Natural Reserve, the Endorois community received neither. The money was meant to aid the Endorois in building water management systems for the arid landscape, schools, roads, and hospitals. Instead, the Endorois have suffered from poverty and lack of resources, while the Kenyan government has ignored their plight. Wilson Kipkazi, a member of the Endorois Welfare Council, says that “the compensation which the Endorois people have received is approximately Ksh. 3000 (25 pounds or 45 dollars) per household. In 2006 we were offered 4 percent of the total revenue collected from the gate collections from the tourists coming to Lake Bogoria Game Reserve.”

Tradtional Endorois dance. Photo courtesy of MRG
Eastwood describes the state of the Endorois people today as “one of the poorest communities in Kenya,” explaining that “the vast majority can’t afford services or education. They have little or no electricity or running water, are consistently dependent on relief food, and must walk long distances to fetch both. They are increasingly unhealthy and unable to gather the barks, roots, and leaves that are found around the lake and that they once relied on for medicinal purposes. Women depend on midwives (the community does not have a single maternity ward to deliver children), and the few children who do attend school must walk up to 40 kilometers to get there.” In addition, the Endorois are cut off from many of their sacred sites and burial places of their ancestors when removed from their traditional homelands. They are no longer able to raise bees, which were used in important cultural rituals, yet cattle remain an invaluable resource for the Endorois. However, their cattle are no longer healthy; they suffer from malnutrition and lack of water.

Kipkazi who describes his community as being “marginalized” for 30 years, says that “the Endorois have no problem with the establishment of the game park; however what we require is that the revenue derived from the tourism business, which has thrived during the last 30 years, trickles down to the true custodians of the land—the people who used to live there. We also want the promises of compensation in the form of land and employment opportunities for the Endorois to be honored. What we demand now is prior consent on matters pertaining to development of resources and services found on Endorois ancestral lands and full participation in the management of those resources.”

Walter Kipkazi, a member of the Endorois Welfare Council. Photo courtesy of MRG
Court action began in 1998. MRG and a Kenyan organization, the Centre of Minority Development, contested the eviction of the Endorois people from their native land. The case was lost with the Kenyan court stating that ownership of land should not be based on historic occupation or cultural ties. The community has since taken its case to a higher court: the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACPHR) based in Gambia. Eastwood describes this legal body as “a landmark human rights treaty which came into force in 1986 and was ratified by Kenya in 1992. In its treatment of the Endorois community the Kenyan government has violated the African Charter in terms of property rights, the right to manage and benefit from natural resources, to practice religion, to cultural life, and to development.”

An additional threat to the livelihood of the Endorois people emerged in 2003. Without notification, Kenyan officials began selling portions of Endorois land to ruby miners. The mining poisoned the people’s water supply. Eventually, ACHPR was forced to get involved. “In June 2006,” Eastwood told, “local officials tested Endorois’ drinking water sources and found they were poisonously contaminated as a result of ruby mining. Mining has now stopped until the case is resolved.”

When asked if he believed the Endorois could come to an agreement with the Kenyan government regarding the use of resources and wildlife in their traditional lands, Kipkazi exclaimed, “Yes!” He believes that the combination of his people’s “local knowledge, and the Kenyan government’s understanding of the use of natural resources to create sustainable wealth would mean that we never experience again the kind of poverty we are experiencing at the moment.” Eastwood points out that several parks, such as Maasai Mara, Samburu National Park, and Mount Elgon Game Park, mix “ecotourism and ethical tourism” in Kenya, and are places where indigenous tribes and park officials work together to preserve ecosystems.

Later this year the Endorois expect a final decision from ACHPR on their status. In the meantime, they can do little but wait and hope.

Minority Rights Group International

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Jeremy Hance, (September 22, 2008).

Kenyan community displaced by nature reserve seeks justice.