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It has been a century of squatting on own land

By | June 14th 2009

By Kipchumba Some

The plight of the Sengwer and Ogiek communities, facing eviction from their forest homes, once again casts the spotlight on the issue of land reforms.

The genesis of their plight is traced to the colonialists’ desire for agricultural land.

The two communities inhabited fertile lands, which the settlers designated as white highlands. These regions were ideal for growing cash crops such as tea and for large-scale food crop farming.

The colonialists herded the communities into reserves and turned their lands into plantations. "However the Ogiek and Sengwer were viewed as unproductive since they did not have a history of plant cultivation," said Onesmus Kipchumba, the Sengwer community lawyer.

It is for this reason that in 1913 the colonial government struck an agreement with the Sengwer community that allowed them to live in open spaces within their forests. They were also given grazing permits for their cattle, says Marakwet East MP Jebii Kilimo. Archival information show the Ogiek land was first targeted in 1903 by the British. The first movement of the Ogiek occurred in 1908 when they were moved from their home near Lake Nakuru to Olare in East Mau.

Another process in which both communities lost their land was through declaration of their lands as forests. Through the declaration, they were rendered squatters overnight, liable for prosecution for trespassing on ‘their land’. The Kenya Land Commission of 1939, known as the Carter Commission, recommended the Ogiek be evicted from all forests and be concentrated on either European farms as squatters or in forestry department labour camps.

The Ogiek were moved into tribal reserves of other communities especially the Nandi, Kipsigis and Maasai. The objective behind this was to assimilate the two communities into the larger ones. This proved impractical since the Ogiek abandoned the reserves and went back to the forest — as squatters.

"Ignorance was the undoing of our people," says J K Towett of the Ogiek Welfare Council. "Legislations passed by the government were nothing but inconsequential paperwork in comparison to their historical claim to these lands," he said.

Also, the passing of the Wildlife Conservation Act and the Forest Act in 1957 legally deprived the two communities of their homes and livelihoods. It became criminal for them to hunt wild animals for food. Part of Sengwer ancestral land in Trans-Nzoia was converted into a game park known as Saiwa Swamp National Park. This area was one of the most prestigious hunting grounds for the Sengwer.

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