Nairobi, Kenya – For years, the Kenyan government has sought to protect the Mau Forest, spanning around 4,000 hectares across several counties, from encroachment and destruction by people who fell trees to sell for charcoal and firewood. But human rights groups have said these efforts have been marred by human rights violations that are yet to stop.
From 2004 to 2006, 100,000 people were evicted from the forest, according to separate reports by rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. These bodies also allege that serious abuses have been committed by successive governments to date.
The latest wave of evictions, which began on November 2, affected more than 1,000 of the Ogiek, a community that has been predominantly hunter-gatherers for centuries in the area in and around the forest.
“As I know it myself, we have lived here for 174 years,” Wilson Ngusilo, a chairperson of the Ogiek council in Narok County in southwest Kenya, told Al Jazeera. “I buried my father on this land at the age of 105 years, and I am personally 69 years old myself. I have known this as my home and don’t know where I am supposed to go.”
The displaced Ogiek said most of their homes were torched by Kenya Forest Service officers.
“Whenever the [officers] meet someone on the way carrying their belongings towards their home, they snatch the belongings and throw them into a river,” Ngusilo said. “On day one, 250 officers came and another 60 joined them the next day. They even brought down my permanent house after destroying it for two days straight.”
Members of the community have been scattered across the area and now live in makeshift structures made of donated nylon bags. They said they are waiting for the government to show them an alternative place to call home.
“Those whose houses have been burned and have not been lucky to get the structures have gone into the forest to take shelter under trees against the heavy rainfall that’s ongoing,” said Daniel Kobei, executive director of the Ogiek People’s Development Program (OPDP). “They use tree bark to cover themselves and especially their children.”
A history of evictions and litigation
The Ogiek were first evicted by the British colonial government after it occupied Kenya in 1920. They moved to other parts of the forest and set up their lives again.
“In fact, most of them were even turned into forest guards by the colonial government when it failed to evict them,” Kobei told Al Jazeera. “They used to put up beehives and protect the forest.”
Initially, the Ogiek only hunted and gathered food inside the forest, mainly depending on bees for honey. But they began intermarrying with nomadic communities like the Maasai and Kipsigis, and they lived in the forest together, which led to increased farming and burning of charcoal for sale as a source of income.
When the forest was declared a national reserve in 1954, the Ogiek claimed exclusive ownership of the place and thus began a long battle with successive governments. By 1996, the Ogiek petitioned the Kenyan Parliament over the issue, but having failed to extract a favourable commitment, they turned to the courts.
President Daniel arap Moi’s government tried – in 1992 and 2001 – to settle the Ogiek within the forest after a tea-planting project barred communities from nearby areas from crossing into what was designated as forest land, but it became hard to resolve because some of those communities moved in, claiming to be part of the Ogiek community.
The Ogiek decided to go to court, even as the authorities began evictions in the mid-2000s.
The case dragged on for almost 12 years in the Kenyan judicial system, so the Ogiek resolved to approach regional justice mechanisms for a permanent solution. They filed a case with the Arusha, Tanzania-based African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), and after six more years, it delivered a landmark ruling on May 26, 2017, in their favour.
The Kenyan government appealed the decision, but the ACHPR ruled against it again in 2022.
“The reparation [judgement by the ACHPR] was done again on June 23, 2022, in the same court in Arusha, underscoring what is to be done, which included restitution to be given their land,” Kobei told Al Jazeera. “And there was some compensation [157,000 shillings ($1,026) per person] to be given. The government was to publish the ruling, both the merit and the reparation, the judgment, which they have not done.”
The evictions began again in November just as Britain’s King Charles III was visiting Kenya, his first state visit since succeeding his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, to the throne.
The environment ministry said it was reclaiming parts of the Mau Forest from “encroachment and illegal logging activities”. It also urged the police and KFS to carry out the exercise in a humane manner. But the Ogiek said this has not been the case.
Kobei said a local court order obtained on November 15 halted the evictions but there are still police officers manning the roads in the Sasimwani area of Narok County. The security agents have reportedly been threatening people from going back to their destroyed homes and promising to continue with the evictions.
On November 6, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights through its Kenya representative, Solomon Ayele Dersso, sent a letter to the Kenyan government, saying it was gravely concerned about the ongoing evictions.
It called for “the cessation of the evictions to limit the irreparable damage that may be caused to the lives, bodily integrity, sources of livelihoods, family life, safety and security” of the Ogiek.
Three days later, Minority Rights Group Africa, a nonprofit working for the protection of the rights of ethnic minorities and Indigenous peoples, described the exercise as “an illegal, violent eviction campaign”.
According to the group, the Kenyan government’s actions are in direct violation of the two landmark judgements issued by the ACHPR.
“[The] judgments … made it clear, inter alia [among other things] that the Ogiek are an indigenous people and are owners of their ancestral lands in the Mau Forest; that the government of Kenya should restitute Ogiek ancestral land through the process of demarcating, delimiting and granting collective title to the Ogiek in the Mau Forest; that the Kenyan government is required to consult Ogiek on any matter regarding their ancestral land, and that the government could not use conservation as a justification to evict the community,” it said in a statement on November 9.
The Kenyan government said at the time of the ruling that it accepted the judgment but has yet to comment on the current evictions.
Meanwhile, the Ogiek said they hope to see more international pressure on the authorities to let them be.
“We call upon the international community to pressure or talk to the government of Kenya to respect such a small, Indigenous minority community not to be in this quagmire of always crying for their land rights and evictions,” Kobei said. “That’s our wish and desire that we can develop like other Kenyans and pursue other important issues in the country.”