Peter Kitelo stops midway in a foot path within the vast swathe of moorland, and scans through the patch before settling on a particular spot located barely 500 metres from Chepkitale hill within Mt Elgon forest.
“This is where my grandfather was buried many years ago. He used to live within this forest which we live in today,” he says.
Within the moorlands, according to Kitelo, lies many other unmarked graves belonging to hundreds of Ogieks of Chepkitale, who live in Mt Elgon forest, a place the community historically resided in as an indigenous minority hunter-gatherer community-turned pastoralists.
The Ogiek of Chepkitale have severally been victims of evictions and have been fighting for their traditional land rights, given the country’s overriding approach to conservation that forbids human occupation in areas gazetted as national parks and forest reserves.
But it is the Ogiek’s story of conserving these lands within the Mt Elgon ecosystem bound by their traditions that stands out as a model of Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs).
ICCAs are natural sites conserved in a voluntary and self-directed way through community values and include indigenous biocultural heritage territories, indigenous protected areas, cultural land and seascapes, sacred sites and species as well as wildlife nesting sites, among others.
While you would expect large farms, charcoal kilns and felled trees within these forests as you would in some other forests, it is the opposite. As per their binding bylaws, commercial crop cultivation, charcoal burning and tree felling are among prohibited activities.
This means the Ogiek traditions have over the years preserved the moorlands and forests in which they reside.
“Here we have our own rules that guide us as a community. Our great grandparents left this place the way it is and we have managed to live without changing much. We are pastoralists and we do not farm. We depend on bee keeping and pastoralism and that is the secret to our survival through ages here,” Moses Ndiema, an elder said.
Coupled with low temperatures and strict bylaws that bind every one of the estimated 4,000 members, farming is barely sustainable.
“Traditionally, we do not farm and even if we did, nothing would grow here. Our focus, however, is to keep our lands as favourable as we found.
“We co-exist with the wild and we have mastered ways of keeping our livestock safe. We also have our own forest scouts that work together with the Kenya Forest Service to report illegal activities,” Ndiema says.
Mt Elgon was designated as a Unesco Biosphere Reserve in 2003. The ecosystem straddles the international boundary between Kenya and Uganda. It is also an international water tower that feeds Lake Victoria, the Nile River system, and Lake Turkana.
As per Ogiek of Chepkitale bylaws that form their customary laws, no one is allowed to engage in charcoal burning. Poaching is also prohibited, just as is commercial crop farming. Illegal brews are banned.
Their bylaws instead advice members of the community to explore other activities like rearing sheep, goats, and cows for exchange with crops.
“We came up with these laws to bind us as a community to protect our environment even as we struggle to attain our land rights. We realised that education changes people, wealth and greed, too, changes people but these laws can govern us to be sensitive to our homeland. We just want to be happy and keep everything intact,” Cosmas Murunga, an elder says.
Within their customary laws, there is a 33-member Supreme Council that advocates for community interests. Each of the 33 members are chairpersons drawn from the 33 clans that form the community.
Then there is Chepkitale Ogiek Governing Council, a security agency which regulates the bylaws and also ensures those breaking them are punished.
“You see, the community, as per our bylaws, cannot market any product from a tree. We survive because of this forest.
We have protected it through the ages even though our contributions as indigenous conservationists have really not been formally recognised,” Murunga said.
He adds that while it is considered a taboo to fell a tree, the community is only allowed to collect dead wood from the forests for building and as firewood.
Besides the governing council, there are village elders and the Nyumba Kumi. In case one breaks the law, the community also has structures in place to punish offenders.
“There three ranks that handle such cases. It is dealt from a village level and if it is beyond their capacity, it is handed over to the next level and finally to the highest level that dispenses a punishment, a reason we have our own forest scouts to also help in keeping our environment safe,” he adds.
Murunga says while the United Nations recognises the indigenous conserved areas, contributions of indigenous communities in areas that have been declared protected remain little understood.
“As minority groups, we are interest groups whose voices matter in conservation not only nationally, but also regionally and globally,” he says.
And while there are cases in court in which the community is seeking their land rights, they feel that the bylaws are beneficial to their way of life.
“If we cut trees, bees will not get flowers and we cannot get honey to consume and sell. We will also not be able to get our own traditional medicine which we extract from the forest,” says Judith Chemayiek.
“During my childhood many years ago, we used to sing praise songs of Mt Elgon forest but nowadays, we sing songs of evictions because we lost rights to the land we conserved for years,” she adds.
But while living in the forests as pastoralists might sound like a challenge to the community, they have innovative ways of keeping their animals safe.
“We cannot kill these animals. Each clan has an animal attached to it, meaning, we have to co-exist. For example, to avoid hyenas and wild dogs from attacking sheep and goats, we raise the shed higher. These sheds are constructed with bamboos and wild animals hardly get through,” Esther Chemos says.
At 90, Esther still recalls sad memories of when after spotting poachers who had killed an elephant in Mt Elgon about 30 years ago, she was attacked by the same poachers after she, and members of her family, alerted the authorities.
“Among the duties every member does here, even before I was born, is to take care of our wild animals. On that fateful day, the poachers realised we had alerted the authorities and came for us in the dead of night.
“I survived, but with scars I live with to date. They attacked us with machetes and knives for telling on them but that has never stopped us from protecting elephants,” Esther says.
But despite the strict bylaws governing Mt Elgon ecosystem, the forest is facing a threat from charcoal burning after replacement of indigenous trees by exotic plantations through Plantation Establishment and Livelihood Improvement Scheme (Pelis), also known as Shamba system.
While the Shamba system was introduced to boost reforestation efforts by engaging communities living adjacent to the forest, the initiative has over time been abused, locals say.
In a 2018 report titled, Forest resources Management and Logging Activities in Kenya, the Shamba system was singled out as one of the most abused programmes within the forest sector, which has heavily impacted on indigenous forests.
The report cited Mt Elgon Forest alongside other water towers including Mt Kenya, Mau Forest, the Aberdare Forest, Loitokitok Forest and Cherangany Forest as some of the areas where the scheme is most abused and indigenous vegetation destroyed to pave way.
But according to the Ogiek of Chepkitale, the programme is devastating to wild animals living in the forests, especially elephants.
“Wild animals do not eat the bark of exotic trees; they need indigenous forests where they are free to move across.
“These tree species being planted under Shamba system do not allow for regeneration of thickets or anything underneath, which is a destruction rather than conservation,” Andrew Kitelo said.
“This is the reason we stood against against shamba system in the area we reside in because we believe in regeneration as forests always do,” he added.
He says while there are sections of Mt Elgon forest under Pelis, there is need to also factor increasing indigenous forest cover to save disappearing key species like the Elgon teak.
“Already species like Elgon teak is disappearing especially in places under Shamba system. It is worrying,” he notes.
But Bungoma County Kenya Forest Service Ecosystem conservator, Otieno Wara, said areas under Shamba system in Mt Kenya had been zoned for plantations. These are areas that have been under plantations for years. When the trees are harvested, the area is still put under Shamba system. We have not opened other areas for Shamba system for the past eight years,” Wara said.
In areas under indigenous forests like Chaptais block, he said degraded areas are being restocked with indigenous plantations.
While in areas like Chepkitale where Ogiek community work with the Kenya Forest Service, he said the community employs own traditional style of conserving forests.
“The Ogiek of Chepkitale have an interesting way of applying their indigenous knowledge in conservation like those governing grazing areas, trees and many others through their own bylaws which are working. Population increase and changing lifestyles, however, might pose a challenge in the future,” Wara said.
Peter Kitelo, the director for Chepkitale Indigenous People’s Development Project, says while the community still struggles to attain land rights to their ancestral lands under the 2010 Constitution, which recognises ancestral lands, and lands traditionally occupied by hunter gatherers, the community is also changing the narrative of conserving and managing land through self-governance.
“Previous provisions did not allow for such recognition but we have been able to demonstrate contributions of indigenous communities whose livelihoods revolve around these forests. When communities have a land tenure, they tend to have a way of protecting it and it is now time we factor in such contributions,” Kitelo adds.
According to him, their efforts in sustainably managing their lands and coming up together as a community has been a model in indigenous community’s contributions in conservation.
Lack of political will
Rights Resource Initiative’s Africa Regional Facilitator, Kendi Borona, says that despite the contributions in conservation by indigenous minority groups, majority of the communities still struggle for land rights.
Lack of political will, weakness in technical capacities and lack of awareness remain a challenge in implementing landmark rulings in the region where indigenous groups have won big.
“In East Africa, for example, a legislative framework exists but there is lack of political will.
“The struggle for independence was majorly a land struggle and most indigenous and minority communities are still struggling decades later,” Borona says.
She adds that while conservation in East Africa region is closely tied to tourism in national parks and reserves, the rate of species decline is still being experienced, a situation she says calls for rethinking models of conservation.
“IUCN Africa Protected Areas Congress (APAC) presents opportunity for open discussion for alternative models and approaches of conservation by different interest groups, among them voices of women, youth, indigenous and local communities,” Borona says.