Small Yaaku tribe wants to be made forest custodian

Members of the Yaaku community during a meeting where they submitted a memorandum on getting custody of Mukogodo Forest to a task force conducting public hearings on the management of public forests. [Jacinta Mutura, Standard]

Members of a near-extinct indigenous community want the Government to recognise them as legal owners of Mukogodo Forest in Laikipia North.

The Yaaku community members want Mukogodo to be handed back to them through a degazettement as a public forest and instead be registered under a Yaaku forest title.

The appeal came after a decision by the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights that found the Kenyan Government at fault for evicting the Ogieks and other communities as the original inhabitants of indigenous forests.

The ruling, which was delivered in Arusha in May 2017, compelled the Kenyan Government to recognise the forest-dwelling tribes and stop evicting them.

As a result, Environment and Forestry Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko constituted a task force to conduct public hearings on the management of indigenous forests by communities.

Last week, the team met the Yaaku members in Mukogodo where they received a memorandum asking the Government to revoke the forest’s title as a protected area.

The Yaaku are among Kenyan communities that have been declared extinct. There are only seven people in Doldol, Laikipia North, who can fluently speak their language (Yakunte), which is among six languages in Kenya that have been classified as extinct by Unesco.

There has been a long history of evictions of traditional hunter-gatherer communities that occupied lands in what have become legally gazetted Government protected areas.

Widespread suffering

The Yaaku claim to be part of this marginalisation that led to widespread suffering after the Government seized Mukogodo Forest without the participation of members.

In the memorandum signed by their representatives, the members said that since Mukogodo was turned into a forest reserve by the colonial government in 1932, the Yaaku people had been negatively affected because they depended entirely on the forest for survival.

“The Yaaku were hunters and gatherers, and after hunting was outlawed in Kenya, the community had to stop. This denied them their livelihood. The community also gathers wild honey, roots and fruits from the forest, but declaring the forest as the Government’s without engaging the community affected us,” said Manasseh Matunge.

They claimed that white settlers had hoodwinked their elders to show them the community’s settlement area in the forest.

The elders were later mobilised to clear bushes to pave way for a physical line which was drawn by the colonialists and named the Mukogodo Forest Reserve.

“We did not know they were taking the forest from us. We were evicted and stated trading with the Maasai,” said Matunge.

The Yaaku are believed to have originated from Ethiopia through northern Kenya after tribal clashes drove them from home. They settled in Mukogodo Forest more than 100 years ago.

The name ‘Mukogodo’ is Yakunte and it means people who live in rocks. Matunge said they used lived in rocks and caves before they were chased out of the forest.

“We used to hunt antelopes, hyrax, giraffes and elephants, among other animals but we no longer do that because hunting was banned in Kenya,” he added.

Today the Yaaku are considered to be part of the Maasai. During the 2009 census their population was estimated to be 6,000, but it has since increased to about 10,000.

“Although we have been assimilated by the Laikipia Maasai, we are not Maasai,” Matunge said, adding that they have been pushing to be recognised as a minority tribe.

He added, “Yaaku people believed in conserving the forest because it was their source of food (honey and animals). But the Maasai grazed their livestock in the forest and flowering plants were destroyed. Yaaku elders conducted prayers at the fountains, but today they have been destroyed by livestock.”

Some conservancies have also taken over caves that were inhabited by the Yaaku and converted them into tourist sites. Yaaku clans include the Luno, Orondi and Losos and each of them had their separate territories in the forest for hunting and gathering.

Hunting and gathering

Daniel Kimarel, a local, said the territories were well preserved because any form of destruction, such as cutting trees, was punished.

If the Government agrees to their request and gives them complete ownership, the Yaaku said they are committed to reducing deforestation for agriculture, settlements and other land uses.

They also plan to form a council of elders and tap into traditional knowledge to ensure prudent forest use by crafting and enforcing regulations governing forest use.

Going forward, the task force led by Robert Kibugi will advise the Government on the management of forests by communities following the court’s ruling.

The decision specifically touched on Ogieks in the Mau Forest, but it found that they were also present in other areas such as Mount Elgon Forest. There are also other indigenous communities claiming forests to be ancestral land such as the Sengwel among others.

“We are basically investigating and taking opinions on the relationship between the indigenous communities and management of forests by the people, and advising the government on what to do,” said Dr Kibugi.

According to Kibugi, the communities living adjacent to forests and engaging in farming activities have also petitioned to be recognised as custodians of forests.

“We have been asked to propose models that can be used to manage all the forests claimed by indigenous communities. After analysing the submissions, we will get expert opinions and advise the Government on the most appropriate thing,” he said.

The team is expected to have looked at the submissions made by indigenous communities by October 24 when their mandate expires and give a report to Mr Tobiko.