Members of the Ogiek indigenous group have been subject to evictions from their forest homeland as part of a government effort to restore the Mau forest, a critically important watershed where deforestation and illegal logging are persistent problems.
Many Ogiek are impoverished, living in camps for displaced persons. Children with poor access to schooling are turning to work in the region’s thriving timber industry.
A new law giving local communities more control over their forests may improve the situation, but advocates say it needs to go further in specifically addressing the needs of marginalized women and children.
Even with two grades to go before completing high school, Vincent Kiptum has already figured out how to deal with a problem troubling his village in Kenya’s Rift Valley: truancy from school.
Once he graduates, Kiptum would like to be the Olenguruone village champion tasked with ensuring that youth enlist in school and remain there until they have a certificate to show.
But such a job will require a mix of strength and intellect if the 18 year old hopes to outwit the triple plagues suffered by the area’s marginalized communities: poverty, displacement, and exploitation by the logging industry.
His target is Olenguruone’s seven to 15 year olds from about 500 households displaced from the nearby forest, like his was. Most of them are not in school, having gone to work in saw mills to help support their families, he said.
“I feel bad when I see young boys being recruited into logging activities instead of being in school,” Kiptum told Mongabay. “Most of them usually work without pay because the timber merchants tell them they will give the wages to their parents.”
The Ogiek Peoples’ Development Programme (OPDP), an NGO, says more than 2,000 households in the Rift Valley region alone could be affected. The Ogiek are an indigenous group whose members have only known the valley’s Mau forest, as well as Mount Elgon to the northwest, as their home, source of food through hunting and gathering, and spiritual enclave. But hundreds of Ogiek families have been evicted from the forests under a government directive aiming to save the ecosystem from human encroachment.
Patrick Kuresoi, a community worker with OPDP, links the exploitation of the region’s youth to high drop out rates due to a lack of schools—a dynamic to which the Ogiek are particularly vulnerable.
“The parents are not well educated. They look upon the education of their children for their future. But now the children are not going to school because the schools are destroyed during evictions,” Kuresoi told Mongabay.
With no schools to go to, he added, the youth are forced to look for jobs in the informal sector, like saw milling. But even here, they work in fear of arrest because they have no papers authorizing them to be in the forest.
“The saw milling companies are the ones issued with permits to be in the forest but the community is not,” explained Kuresoi. “When the youth are sent to harvest trees or load timber into trucks, they risk being arrested for being there illegally.”
The youth’s legal helplessness makes them even more vulnerable to exploitation, Kuresoi added. Kiptum seems to agree.
A former hired hand himself and a member of the Ogiek, Kiptum said he regrets the time he wasted working as a timber loader for a saw-milling merchant. That was about seven years ago, he recalled, when he dropped out of school temporarily to help his family scratch out a living after they were evicted from Mau.
“My family was evicted from our home because the government claimed that we were living in the Mau forest illegally,” he said. “My parents did not have formal jobs because we used to live off the forest.”
And though he was lucky to go back to school following the intervention of humanitarian agencies like the U.N.’s children’s agency UNICEF, Kiptum thinks more than kindness will be needed to fix the growing crisis facing communities like his.
Evictions from Mau
At roughly 400,000 hectares (1,500 square miles), Mau is Kenya’s largest closed-canopy forest ecosystem and an important so-called “water tower” — a forested landmark that captures water during the rainy season that it releases to replenish freshwater resources during the dry season. Mau is the source of seven rivers that serve vast wildlife habitats in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve and also feed Lake Victoria. About 10 million people depend on it.
The late Nobel Laureate and Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai championed the Mau ecosystem for its role ensuring ecological balance throughout eastern and central Africa.
Despite these vital traits, Mau is one of the mostly hotly contested ecosystems in Kenya. Trouble started in 2001, when the government under president Daniel Arap Moi allocated some 60,000 hectares (232 square miles) of forest land to settlers as a way of gaining political support. Much of this land had been under the care of the Ogiek people.
The government issued deeds to the land to settlers, who cleared the forest for agriculture. But a team of government investigators under the subsequent president, Mwai Kibaki, revealed that the deeds were not issued through due process.
In addition to outright deforestation, indigenous trees were replaced with industrial forest plantations of exotic trees. In all, Mau has lost some 37,000 hectares of tree cover between 2001 and 2014— 11 percent over 14 years.
Starting in 2007, environmentalists claimed that a period of prolonged drought and erratic weather that killed wildlife and livestock downstream was due to the deforestation of Mau. Public outcry ensued and the government decided to evict settlers as part of a program to reforest Mau.
However, over 1,600 Ogiek families have been evicted as well from Mau alone, according to Kuresoi. The latest eviction, of around 100 families, apparently by private individuals operating with police protection, took place in March, according to the New York-based NGO International Network for Economic, Social & Cultural Rights. This was followed by the eviction in June of more than 200 families from Mount Elgon about 140 miles away, The Guardian reported. The evictions have been a constant cause of tension between the indigenous group and the government.
Ogiek elder Joseph Towett has lived in the Mau forest, his community’s ancestral home, for 53 years. He said the Ogiek took care of the forest by conserving it, and the forest took care of the community as a home and source of food. The evictions, and the brutal way the government has carried them out, have been traumatic for his people.
“We are not against conservation of the forest but when the authorities come they beat us, burn our houses and food stocks,” he told Mongabay. “Our children cannot go to school because they come and burn schools, uniforms, and even books.”
This is how children like Kiptum found themselves without a classroom. Their new homes were makeshift Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps on the fringes of the forest.
Camps like the one in Olenguruone, a village that has hosted Mau IDPs since 2011, is a place of mixed fortunes. Some adults have been able to make a living from small businesses like carving bamboo into chairs and other handicrafts. But many displaced families are far less fortunate and their young people generally have three options: remain destitute, move into towns to beg for alms, or find work in the region’s saw mills.
Owned by local tycoons, the saw mills are the most lucrative businesses in the Rift Valley region. Much of the indigenous forest has been replaced by exotic trees like pine and cypress, which the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) allows saw millers to harvest and process for the export market. KFS also authorizes the harvest of mature plantations for management and research purposes.
The Timber Traders Association (TTA), a commercial group representing the valley’s small-scale saw millers, attributes the industry’s success to legitimate business. However, not everyone is convinced that is the case.
“You cannot rule out the possibility of unscrupulous traders taking advantage of the deep cover of the bush to cut indigenous trees in the most interior part of the forest,” Richard Siko, a forest dissemination officer at the government’s Kenya Forestry Research Institute in the Rift Valley town of Londiani , told Mongabay.
Forest experts generally acknowledge that illegal logging within Mau and other Kenyan forests is a persistent problem. KFS commandant Alex Lemarkoko is one of them, although he attributed the illegal activity to poor people rather than wealthy mill owners.
“Our main concern is that there are threats that are normally of human nature that affect sustainable management of forests mainly because of levels of poverty affecting people living near forests,” Lemarkoko told Mongabay.
He added that KFS is working with communities and stakeholders like community forest associations to manage illegal logging.
“We have increased forest patrols and placement of our rangers in the beat,” said Lemarkoko. “We are also involving community scouts who are trained to provide us with information, intelligence, and even support us during joint patrols that we do with them.”
However, KFS itself has been implicated in the illegal activity in Mau. A recent investigation by the National Land Commission (NLC), a government agency charged with arbitrating the resettlement of IDPs in the region and land rights for communities like the Ogiek, found that forest rangers are involved in illegal logging within Mau.
According to NLC chairman Mohammed Swazuri, the rangers participate in logging in the deepest parts of the forest that few people can access.
“We have [proof] of these allegations although I can’t say to what extent this is happening,” Swazuri told Mongabay. “You pass along the road and think the place is forested because of the presence of trees. But when you go inside the forest, there is nothing.”
KFS commandant Lemarkoko would neither deny nor confirm this allegation to Mongabay.
A burden on women and children
In July Mongabay visited four sawmills in the Rift Valley, and found children as young as five years old working at two of them. The younger children were working as free labour, collecting and stacking timber peelings, which the mill owners sell to hotels and food kiosks as fuel. Older youth were involved in heavier work like cutting trees and loading logs or finished timber onto trucks. The children wore no protective clothing. Most of them work informally and have no contract to show their terms of engagement.
However, neither the government nor the timber industry have acknowledged the participation of children in the business, or done anything about it.
Charity Muthoni Munyasya, deputy director of forest conservation and management at KFS, told Mongabay she is not aware that school-age children work in saw mills. “It has not come to our attention that the youth work in saw mills because we tell saw millers to employ mature people,” she said.
A representative of the TTA also denied to Mongabay that youngsters are recruited into the trade.
Nevertheless, Munyasya, who said she believes the Rift Valley’s timber industry is flourishing off the legitimate harvest of exotic trees, did acknowledge that the industry affects women and children most, due to the high levels of poverty in the area.
And locals interviewed for this story confirmed that exploitation of the marginalized in the region’s logging business goes beyond underage labor by youth who should be in school.
Milkach Korich, an independent human rights activist, told Mongabay that girls and women are victimized in other ways, too. She pointed to a case she handled in Embobut forest, about 100 miles from Mau, in which a village scout raped a woman and left her helpless. The scout was flanked by a KFS official, she alleged.
Crimes like these happen, she said, because women and girls go into the forest to collect firewood for cooking, usually unprotected. When they encounter people involved in the logging business, they are vulnerable to abuse, she added.
Many rapes go unreported. But even when they are reported, it’s rare for action to be taken against the offenders due to police indifference as well as cultural beliefs and poverty, which combine forces to prevent women from speaking out, according to Korich. Although she reported the Embobut forest case to the local police, she said justice has never been served.
Korich, who is also an anthropologist, said she has evidence that in addition to burning houses and destroying family property during forest evictions, KFS rangers have been arresting women, locking them up, and demanding bribes from their husbands to secure their release.
The husbands have also contributed to the problems facing women and children in the region, she said. A few of the displaced families have received compensation from the government to resettle elsewhere. But when money does come, the husbands tend to disappear with it to spend it in towns, only to reappear when it’s gone, she said.
The upshot for Korich is that the complex problems playing out in the Rift Valley fall heaviest on the shoulders of its most vulnerable residents. “It is the women and children who are carrying the burden of what the government and the men do. They are triple marginalized,” she said.
An Africa-wide problem
Mau’s illegal logging problem and its associated exploitation of the poor are replicated elsewhere in Africa, experts say. At the United Nations Environment Assembly meeting in Nairobi this May, Davyth Stewart of INTERPOL’s environmental security program made the case to Mongabay that to stop exploitation of communities living near forests, African governments will have to deal with criminal networks that the agency’s investigations traced from the forests to international destinations.
Stewart argued that African law enforcement officers have been so focused on low-level criminals working in the forest that they have failed to stop the barons running the timber enterprises.
“The people working in the communities are just looking for employment and are guided by need and not greed,” Stewart told Mongabay. “We need to see law enforcement in Africa moving higher up on the chain of command in the criminal networks to focus on those that are running the enterprises.”
He said governments need to invest in deeper investigations that track financial flows and spotlight those controlling and profiting from the timber criminal networks. He also said governments will have to resolve land tenure issues and clarify laws on land ownership in order to stem exploitation of the poor in the timber industry. Interpol investigations linked unclear land tenure laws to widespread illegal logging in Africa and to exploitation of those living on the margins.
“Lack of land tenure makes it very easy for timber barons to know exactly which unprotected land to pitch their operations and how to access cheap labor among the youth and women,” said Stewart.
Progress ahead for Kenya?
Kenya is taking steps in that direction, according to the NLC’s Swazuri. In a couple of weeks, Kenya will have its first law enabling the separation of community from public land. Once operational, the Community Land Bill will enable local people to manage their forests with minimal interference from the government, he said.
“It means that there will be no more evictions from forests that have been mapped as community land,” said Swazuri. “It also means IDPs like those in the Mau region will be resettled to their permanent homes once and for all.”
Public and private activities will be prohibited on land designated public under the law, he said. This government oversight role will also apply to community land, where authorities will have powers to ensure that community forests are sustainably managed and conserved, he said.
“Under article 69 of the Constitution of Kenya, the government has a role to protect the environment and ensure that Kenya achieves a tree coverage of 10 per cent,” added Swazuri. Tree coverage currently stands at about 6 percent, after a nationwide loss of more than 250,000 hectares (965 square miles) since 2000.
The new law may help Kiptum achieve his dream of ensuring the youth in his village sport an education. But activists insist that laws like the Community Land Bill must go further than they currently do, and give special protection and consideration to women and children since they are the ones who bear the heaviest burden of displacement and environmental pressure.
“The woman raises, feeds, and takes care of society,” one such activist, Cecilia Kibe of the Kenya Climate Change Working Group, told Mongabay. “But when nature turns hostile to society, it is the woman who must suffer most from these pressures.”
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