As millions of Kenyans are faced with hunger following an unprecedented dry spell, interspersed with excessive flooding, the government recently called for a 90-day ban on all logging activities as it reviews the country’s forest sector. This ban comes at a time when Kenya’s forest cover stands well below the 10 percent and major rivers are drying up.
However, the ban will have little impact unless it is accompanied by an overhaul of Kenya’s approach to conservation. We need to recognise that traditional forest dwelling communities – like the Ogiek of Mt Elgon and Mau, the Yaaku of Mugogodo forest, the Awer of Boni forest and the Sengwer of the Cherangany Hills – have a critical role to play in conserving our forests.
For long, Kenya has relied on a conservation approach that is outdated and unjust, leading to abuse of human rights against indigenous communities. Evidence is now accumulating to show that this ‘fortress’ conservation approach, where communities are kept off their ancestral lands, has led to immense destruction of the way of life, the livelihoods and the environment of these communities.
In a landmark ruling in May 2017, the African Court of Human and Peoples Rights found that evictions of the Ogiek community of Mau by the Kenyan Government had not helped secure the Mau forest. Instead, the Court found that the harm to the environment was caused by encroachments and practices of others, not the indigenous Ogiek community. Indeed, the ongoing public admission by the state on the wanton destruction of forests, including of the Mau complex, confirms the court’s findings.
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But while we celebrated this ruling, our Sengwer brothers and sisters continued to face forcible –and often violent– evictions. Even at Mt Elgon, destruction of the forest has continued under the cover of the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) led Plantations Establishment and Livelihood Improvement Scheme (PELIS), also known as the "Shamba system". While intended to replant trees in deforested areas, at Mt Elgon the system is used to degrade and then clear indigenous forests, create temporary fields and then replant with exotic species. Similarly, the Community Forest Associations that were set up to ensure community participation have enabled KFS and other elites to exploit the forest for their benefit.
In contrast, when forest communities such as ours are able to exercise their rights, they protect forests, partly by excluding those who come only to exploit them. As a case in point, the forests within our Chepkitale community lands are still intact, and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has noted that local elephants spend 80 percent of their time on our lands – most likely because of the availability of food and the safe environment.
More recently, we have taken steps to formalize some of our traditions, including developing sustainability bylaws, which spell out how we will conserve our land. We have also set-up community scouts who patrol our land to ensure bylaws are observed and, when necessary, arrest charcoal burners and work with KWS to deal with poachers.
We have also been very proactive in establishing relationships and collaborating with key government agencies. Meanwhile, KFS has refused to engage in any meaningful partnership, hiding under the guise that their engagement with communities is only possible through Community Forest Associations.
On the other hand, the fortress approach to conservation adopted by the government and enforced by KFS has led to illegal logging and profiteering by individuals within the very agency that was put in place to protect our forests.
Around the world, millions of Indigenous people and local communities have been fighting for decades to get their land rights recognized and studies have shown that securing the land rights of forest communities is the best way to ensure forest conservation. More recently, the United Nations urged politicians to recognize that indigenous communities around the world were the most effective custodians of millions of hectares of forest "which act as the world's lungs".
It is time for Kenya to move away from the idea that the government, and its agencies, are the only safe hands who can protect our country’s precious resources. Instead, we must use the opportunity presented by the 'Task Force to Inquire into Forest Resources Management and Logging Activities in Kenya' to rethink how our forests should now be managed. And that means recognizing the rights of communities to own and protect their land, because it will protect everyone’s future. We have entrusted our wildlife to communities through conservancies – why not our forests?
Mr Kitelo is Director of Chepkitale Indigenous Peoples’ Development Project (CIPDP) and convener of Kenya Forest Indigenous Peoples Network (FIPN)