- On Nov. 2, a joint force of the police, the Kenya Forest Service and the Kenya Wildlife Service moved to evict 700 Ogiek households from the edges of the Maasai Mau Forest.
- But the African Court on Human and People’s Rights had in 2017 ordered the government to recognize the Ogiek claim to the forest, involve them in its management, and pay damages for earlier evictions.
- The government still hasn’t acted on the court’s rulings, instead accusing the Ogiek of responsibility for the destruction of as much as 2,800 hectares (7,000 acres) of forest.
- But the African Court found no evidence the Ogiek are responsible for this damage, and Ogiek leaders want collective titles to the forest to be formally granted, so the group’s members can live in peace on their ancestral land.
SASIMWANI, Kenya — On a cold November afternoon, Esther Norparua and two of her daughters sat on the ground outside her homestead facing the forest. Dark clouds gathered, but the compound’s two houses would offer little shelter from the coming rain: several days earlier, police had descended on Ogiek villages in this part of Kenya’s Mau Forest complex, demolishing or burning dozens of homes in a sustained operation to evict their inhabitants. Norparua only had time to remove a few things before officers tore off her home’s zinc roof and punched huge holes into the mud walls.
Maasai Mau forms part of the larger Mau Forest complex, 273,300 hectares (675,300 acres) of protected forests that form a vital water tower, the source of rivers that flow into the celebrated Mara-Serengeti ecosystem and which thousands of communities downstream depend on for agriculture and domestic use. Satellite data from monitoring platform Global Forest Watch indicate the Mau Forest complex as a whole lost 19% of its tree cover between 2001 and 2022.
There are three Ogiek villages on the edge of Maasai Mau, at Sasimwani, in Narok county, 190 kilometers (118 miles) from the capital, Nairobi. They’re set in the hills, surrounded by a thick canopy of trees. Every homestead has a portion of land nearby where they cultivate crops like potatoes, maize and vegetables. Cattle and sheep graze in long-established glades.
The broken beams and burnt-out houses amid this landscape are signs of a bitter struggle between an Indigenous people fighting for their place in a modern state and a government accusing them of destroying the forest that’s their ancestral home. At stake are both the Ogiek’s livelihoods and the forest they have called home since long before the nation of Kenya was born.
What’s going on?
On Nov. 2, a joint force of the police, the Kenya Forest Service and the Kenya Wildlife Service arrived in Sasimwani with orders to evict 700 households. When Mongabay visited the area on Nov. 13 and 14, much of the village had been destroyed, and locals expected officers would move on to the neighboring villages of Pogo and Sagatian.
Many Sasimwani residents stayed on despite the destruction and heavy rains. Others sought shelter with friends and relatives in the nearby town of Ololkirkiria. Donkeys trekked the paths away from the villages, laden with household items and furniture rescued from the onslaught.
Now fighting a persistent cough, Norparua sat impassive as storm clouds gathered. Two wooden doors salvaged from the ruins lay next to her; a plastic sheet had been stretched over what remained of the smaller hut that had been her kitchen. She told Mongabay she’d caught a cold in the days after the demolitions. “It rained all night and we stood under the polythene until morning. Now we sit here all day. We can’t work and we have nowhere to go,” she said.
On Nov. 15, after two weeks of demolitions, Kenya’s Environment and Land Court ordered a halt to the evictions until it could rule on Sasimwani residents’ rights to the land. The Ogiek Council of Elders, supported by Kenya’s National Commission on Human Rights, had asked the court, which has jurisdiction over land and environmental disputes, to decide whether the Ogiek are entitled to live there.
Mongabay spoke to the Narok county commissioner, Isaac Masinde, while houses were still being knocked down in early November. He said evictions would continue until there was no one left in the forest: “We will then fence the forest and plant 4.3 million trees in the area.”
According to Masinde, up to 2,800 hectares (6,900 acres) of forest in Narok county have been destroyed by encroaching farmers since 2018. He said the Ogiek are to blame for the destruction.
In late October, Abdi Hassan, the regional commissioner for the Rift Valley region, told a national television channel, Citizen TV, that the government had evicted 3,000 people from other parts of the forest.
But the October evictions involved people who had moved into parts of Maasai Mau from elsewhere in search of land. Unlike them, the Indigenous Ogiek have lived in the Mau Forest since long before the authorities trying to force them out were established.
African Court recognizes Ogiek claim
For more than a century, dating back to British colonial rule in Kenya, the Ogiek have been repeatedly expelled from parts of their land. In 2009, served with a 30-day eviction notice by the Kenyan government, the Ogiek Council of Elders tried a new tack: it petitioned the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights for protection.
In 2017, the African Court, established by African Union member states in 1998, recognized the Ogiek claim to the forest. In a subsequent ruling in 2022, the court rejected the Kenyan government’s argument that evictions were necessary to protect the forest, finding that while there was evident damage and degradation to the Mau Forest, the Ogiek were not responsible. It ordered the government to formally recognize the Ogiek as an Indigenous group, pay them damages, and move to demarcate and grant them communal title to their ancestral territory within a year of the judgment, covering all 22 blocks of the Mau Forest complex.
“The court established that there was a breach of the Ogieks’ rights,” said Lucy Claridge, executive director of the International Lawyers Project, which has supported the Ogiek struggle since 2010.
“It ordered that the Ogiek shouldn’t be left out of development projects — if the government is undertaking projects like carbon trading on their land for instance. The ruling also granted the Ogiek leeway to use the land according to their way of life which protects and conserves the forest.”
But the government still hasn’t implemented the African Court’s judgments, Claridge told Mongabay. There have been no reparations paid, no consultations over development, and the government hasn’t even published the judgment as required. Officials from the National Land Commission visited the area in August 2023, when the Ogiek People’s Development Program, an organization that advocates for the group’s rights across the country, proposed that Ogiek communities be granted collective title to their land.
“The thinking was that once we have one title, no Ogiek will have the power to sell their land and then move to the forest or disenfranchise future Ogiek generations,” said OPDP executive director Daniel Kobei.
Masinde said the government respects the African Court’s ruling. But, he said, the Ogiek’s rights to this part of the forest as an Indigenous people are on condition that they live only from hunting and gathering.
“They allowed other people to come into the forest. They leased land to them and they also cleared the forest to plant crops,” he said. He added that this runs contrary to the Ogiek’s traditional lifestyle of hunting and gathering, hence prompting the decision to evict them.
But the African Court’s 2017 judgment explicitly states that the Ogiek are entitled to the right to collective title to their land, as well as to live on it, undisturbed, as they see fit. “Indigenous people … have, by the fact of their existence, the right to live freely in their own territory.”
The livestock and small farms around Sasimwani homesteads indicate that the community does have a footprint in the forest. Kobei said that today, even if they wished to, members of his community can no longer live solely as hunter-gatherers. They also need a cash income to pay for things like school fees. “Where is the economy of the Ogiek going to come from if they don’t do a bit of farming, a bit of cattle rearing? Where else?” he said, also pointing out that hunting has been illegal in Kenya since 1971.
Claridge, who represented the Ogiek before the African Court, also said the government had produced no evidence showing that destruction of the Mau Forest can be attributed to the Ogiek. She told Mongabay that deforestation and degradation of the complex has been driven by outsiders who were settled in the forest by the government.
Independent research supports her argument. Researchers who interviewed county rangers and officials from KWS and KFS heard that much of the forest degradation in Maasai Mau has occurred thanks to abuse of forest use permits, which the surveyed officials pointedly noted have been issued opaquely and not limited to locals. They also told researchers that political interference, including sabotage of conservation efforts, opposing the eviction of illegal settlers, and pushing to move forest boundaries to legitimize encroachment, has played an important role.
Another study, looking at the Eastern Mau portion of the forest complex, also found that the redrawing of reserve boundaries for resettlement and the establishment of tea plantations was followed by extensive forest loss and degradation in those areas. “In the case of the Mau Forest, the allocation of land by the government to small-scale farmers has played a major role in the recent deforestation. The last massive loss of gazetted forest in this area dates back to 2001 when 61,023 ha [150,791 acres] of the forest were excised,” the authors write.
[POSS. CUT: “They have indigenous knowledge which enables them to live in harmony with the forest. They know which trees are indigenous and they can have access to the forest in a sustainable manner. The trees in the forest are of medicinal value to them and they rely on others for beehives,” she added.]
Decades of dispossession
Since Kenya’s independence, the government’s stance on ownership of the forest has swung wildly back and forth. In the 1960s, the Ogiek were allowed to resettle in parts of the forest; elders told researchers they were permitted to keep cattle, sheep and donkeys, but not goats. In 1975, Ogiek communities suffered evictions in which livestock was confiscated, houses burned down, and violent abuse was committed against residents.
A long period of exclusion, during which the Ogiek struggled as squatters in surrounding areas, only ended in 1993, when some community members were formally allocated plots of land in their ancestral territories. But the awarding of land in these areas to non-Ogiek at the same time confused issues — and reduced the size of the allocated plots.
When the forest reserve boundaries across the Mau complex were resurveyed in 2001, many Ogiek and others were abruptly told they were now within reserved areas. Another round of violent evictions of Ogiek and non-Ogiek alike followed in 2002.
Kobei conceded that in some other areas of the Mau complex, individual Ogiek have sold their land and encroached on the forest reserve, but said it’s the government’s failure to clarify ownership of the forest that created the conditions for this.
In their 2009 submission to the African Court, the Ogiek asked that the government grant their Indigenous communities collective titles covering all 22 blocks of the Mau complex as provided for under Kenya’s Community Land Act.
Kobei said the Ogiek in Sasimwani want to be granted collective title to 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres). “The reason why we want one title in Sasimwani is to avoid unnecessary sale of land where the Ogiek are given land and one sells and gets into the forest. This has happened in other areas in the Mau, including Tinet,” he said.
A broken peace reigns over Sasimwani following the Nov. 15 order to halt evictions. Residents are waiting for the local Environment and Land Court to make a substantial ruling as well as for another hearing at the African Court. Kenya’s government should have submitted a report on implementation of the court’s earlier ruling granting the Ogiek their rights to land in June, Claridge told Mongabay, but it still hasn’t done so.
When governments have failed to implement its decisions, the African Court can refer cases to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, and ultimately the African Union, for action, though it has historically been reluctant to do so.
The situation is similar to that of hundreds of Endorois families who were expelled from their land in the 1970s to create Lake Bogoria National Reserve, also in Kenya. They too took their case to the African Court and won a similar ruling against the government in 2010.
And they too are still waiting for the government to act on that judgment.
From the ruins of his house, Norparua’s neighbor, Samson Ragita, pointed at a distant hill that he said marked the colonial boundary of the forest. “I want the government to recognize me, recognize my home, and demarcate it, so that they can take care of their forest and I can stay in my home. I also want them to pay me for this destruction,” he said.
Banner image: Peter Nagul sitting amidst the ruins that used to be his house. Image by Anthony Langat for Mongabay.
Jebiwott, A., Morara Ogendi, G., Kazaba, P. K., & Akintunde Alo, A. (2023). An assessment of the process and impacts of evictions on livelihoods in mau forest, Kenya. The Palgrave Handbook of Global Social Change, 1-22. doi:10.13140/RG.2.2.14231.85921
Mwiwawi, R. F., & Chepkong’a, M. K. (2023). Unrelenting community encroachment and deforestation: The case of Maasai mau forest in Narok County, Kenya. African Journal of Social Issues, 5(1), 200-214. doi:10.4314/ajosi.v5i1.13
Albertazzi, S., Bini, V., Lindon, A., & Trivellini, G. (2018). Relations of power driving tropical deforestation: A case study from the Mau Forest (Kenya). Belgeo, 2. doi:10.4000/belgeo.24223
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