Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Kenya: ‘The Ogiek journey in the corridors of justice, from Kenya to Banjul then Arusha, was never a bed of roses, it had ups and downs, but thanks to MRG’s support throughout, the litigation process was a success’
By Lucy Claridge
In 2017, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights issued its first ever ruling on indigenous rights in a case brought by MRG in partnership with Kenya’s Ogiek community. Numbering around 30,000 people, the Ogiek are some of Africa’s last remaining forest dwellers. Traditionally honey-gatherers, they survive mainly on wild fruits and roots, game hunting and traditional beekeeping. Having inhabited the Mau Forest for many centuries, their unique way of life is closely tied to its rich biodiversity and natural resources: in fact, the term ‘Ogiek’ literally means ‘caretaker of all plants and wild animals’.
Since independence, and indeed prior to it, Ogiek have been routinely subjected to arbitrary forced evictions from their ancestral lands by the Kenyan government, without consultation or compensation. The Ogiek community’s rights over their traditionally owned lands have been systematically denied and ignored, with the Kenyan government allocating land to third parties, including political allies, and even permitting substantial commercial logging to take place. The eviction, without compensation or consent, of Ogiek from their ancestral lands and the refusal to allow them access to their spiritual home has prevented the community from carrying out their traditional practices and their hunter-gatherer way of life. As a result, their very existence is threatened.
In a landmark judgment, issued in May 2017, the Court found that the Ogieks’ rights to property and natural resources, non-discrimination, religion, culture and development had been violated. The Court also made some very clear rulings in relation to the role of indigenous peoples, and specifically hunter-gatherers, in conservation – rulings that are crucial to the fight against climate change. The Court clearly stated that the preservation of the Mau Forest could not justify the lack of recognition of Ogieks’ indigenous or tribal status, nor the denial of the rights associated with that status. It also explicitly confirmed that the Ogiek community could not be held responsible for the depletion of the Mau Forest, nor could it justify their eviction or the denial of access to their land to exercise their right to culture.
These edicts will be of huge relevance to other forest communities that have been evicted from their traditional lands in the name of conservation, including Sengwer in Western Kenya and Batwa from Kahuzi-Biega National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo DRC, a community on whose behalf MRG is also currently litigating. In the words of Daniel Kobei, Executive Director of the Ogieks’ representative organization Ogiek Peoples Development Program:
[T]he Ogiek journey in the corridors of justice, from Kenya to Banjul then Arusha, was never a bed of roses, it had ups and downs, but thanks to MRG’s support throughout, the litigation process was a success. We don’t know how the Ogiek case would have turned out without partners like MRG standing by us – and they are still by our side, supporting in all aspects. We are indeed indebted to them for their teamwork, especially fraternity.
Photo: Ogiek cultural day, April 2017 / OPDP