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Kenya’s lost tribesmen cannot live in the woods

By | June 14th 2009

Kenya’s lost tribesmen cannot live in the woods

By Kipchumba Some

The last two of Kenya’s forest-dwelling aboriginal communities are facing imminent extinction following Government’s move to evict them from their natural habitat.

Members of the Ogiek and Sengwer ethnic groups are facing displacement from gazetted forest reserves located in various parts of Rift Valley and Western provinces which they consider part of their ancestral homes.

The Ogiek inhabit the Mau Forest Complex and Mt Elgon Forest. The Sengwer, also known as Cherangany or Kimaala, are currently distributed in Trans Nzoia, Marakwet, Baringo, and West Pokot districts in Rift Valley Province.

Traditionally, the two communities are hunters and gatherers and have long been considered guardians of the forest. But their lifestyles, or at least what remains of it, are about to change forever due to conservation efforts. The Government says the two communities have changed their modes of living to commercial agriculture and are now posing a great risk to the forest their ancestors once fought to conserve.

The Ogiek are associated with the Kalenjin and are yet to be formally recognised as an independent tribe. [PHOTO: FILEs/STANDARD]

"Where in this country do you find hunters and gatherers?" posed Marakwet DC Joseph Kisangau.

"They are simply hiding behind the cloak of minority tribes to perpetuate the destruction of forests," he said.

But members of the communities and human rights activists say they are paying a price for the sins of larger groups around them who were allowed to encroach on forestland.

"The larger communities around us used our presence in the forest to encroach on the land," said Onesmus Kipchumba, a lawyer representing the Sengwer community.

"We are paying for the sins of others," he added.

The latest offensive in Embobut Forest, Marakwet District, has rendered about 5,000 Sengwer families homeless. It is estimated the number of those living in the forest is less than 10,000.

"This community has lived in the forest since time immemorial," says Marakwet East MP Jebii Kilimo, in whose constituency the forest lies.

Customary Rights

"By evicting them, the Government is violating the customary rights of these groups," she added.

Embobut covers 21,934 hectares of which 15,000 is said to be under threat. The forest is an important water catchment area for Lake Victoria basin, parts of Turkana, Baringo and Uasin Gishu districts.

The vice-chairman of the Marakwet County Council Joseph Kapchila says "there are no known historical squatters among the Marakwet," implying some of the squatters from the community are encroaching on forestland.

"Not all of those evicted are genuine squatters. Some politically connected people duped our people into buying forest land while others simply went to the forest on their own," he said.

Now all of them are due to be evicted, irrespective of how they got there.

A meeting by members of the local community held in Kapsowar, in May, endorsed a decision to have everyone living in the forest moved.

"Of course the greatest losers will be the Sengwer. The forest is the only home they have ever known. Others might have somewhere to go but we simply do not know where this community will go," said Kilimo.

It is predicted the same fate will befall Ogieks once the Government moves to evict people from the Mau. About 15,000 families are said to have invaded the 450,000-hectare complex.

Mau forest serves as the catchment area for several lakes in Rift Valley including Nakuru, Bogoria and Baringo and also Lake Natron in Tanzania. Rivers draining into Lake Victoria, the world’s second largest fresh water body, have their origins in the Mau.

But wanton logging and farming inside and around the forest is threatening its existence. The Government is, however, locked in a stalemate with the locals and politicians who are insisting they be compensated or allocated alternative land before they move.

The Ogiek community form a significant number of those to be moved from this forest complex. In the recent past, some of them have fallen victim to Government’s conservation efforts in other parts of the country.

Burnt houses

In 2006, more than 5,000 Ogiek families were driven out of Kipkurere, Cengalo, Cerengony and Cheboror forests in Nandi and Uasin Gishu districts, and their houses burnt.

The previous year, they were evicted from Enoosupukia in Narok District. Sadly, they were not given an alternative piece of land. As a result, most of them live as squatters.

It is a double blow for the two communities. For many years they unsuccessfully fought against the systematic destruction of their habitats. And now they find themselves victims of Government’s belated efforts to conserve the forests.

Kisangau said the Government is not obliged to look for alternative land for the affected communities.

"We are not obliged to reward people who cause harm to our environment," he said.

The Vice-Chairperson of the Kenya National Human Rights Commission Hassan Omar urges the Government to respect the cultural identities of minority communities before removing them from their homes.

"There should be no blanket condemnation of all communities. Government ought to identify genuine squatters and illegal grabbers when moving these communities. Their cultural identities should also be respected," he said.

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