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Landmark decision rules Kenya’s removal of indigenous people from ancestral land illegal

4 February 2010

In a landmark decision, an African regional body has found the Kenyan government guilty of violating the rights of the country’s indigenous Endorois community, by evicting them from their lands to make way for a wildlife reserve.

The decision, by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, creates a major legal precedent by recognising, for the first time in Africa, indigenous peoples’ rights over traditionally owned land and their right to development.

The decision was adopted by the African Commission in May 2009 and approved by the African Union at its January 2010 meeting in Addis Ababa.

“Minority Rights Group International applauds the African Commission’s ruling on this case. Aside from providing immediate remedy to the Endorois community by affirming their collective right to ancestral lands, the decision constitutes a milestone in the development of indigenous rights in Africa,” says Lucy Claridge, Minority Rights Group International’s (MRG) Head of Law.

Endorois land was originally appropriated by the Kenyan government in the 1970s to create the Lake Bogoria National Reserve.

MRG, and Kenyan NGO the Centre for Minority Rights Development (CEMIRIDE), lodged a complaint with the African Commission in 2003, claiming that the Kenyan government had violated the African Charter by failing to recognise and protect the Endorois’ ancestral land rights and refusing to compensate the community adequately or grant restitution of their land.

“We are delighted that the African Commission has recognised the wrong that was done decades ago,” says Wilson Kipsang Kipkazi, of the Endorois Welfare Council (EWC). “This decision is the result of a sustained campaign for the recognition of the Endorois as a distinct indigenous community and the restoration of our ancestral land.”

The historic decision comes at a time when Kenya is in the midst of implementing constitutional, electoral, and land reforms, meant to strengthen social and ethnic inclusion and stem a repeat of the 2007 post-election violence that left hundreds dead and property destroyed.

“This ruling is likely to further expose the inadequacy of Kenya’s current constitution, which fails to accord protection to minorities, indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups. It will put pressure on those drafting the new constitution to put in place positive measures to address this glaring omission,” says Korir Sing’Oei, Co-counsel for the Endorois community and Co-founder of CEMIRIDE.

In another first for Africa, the Commission also found that in failing to provide sufficient compensation, or provide suitable alternative land for grazing after the eviction of the Endorois, Kenya’s government fell short of adequately providing for the community in the development process.

“This sends a clear message that development must be equitable, non-discriminatory, participatory, accountable and transparent”, says Cynthia Morel, who litigated on behalf of the Endorois as former Senior Legal Advisor to MRG, and currently works for the Open Society Justice Initiative. “The ruling places an obligation upon States to treat indigenous peoples as active stakeholders rather than passive beneficiaries.”

The Endorois are a semi-nomadic indigenous community of approximately 60,000 people, who for centuries have earned their livelihoods from herding cattle and goats in the Lake Bogoria area of Kenya’s Rift Valley.

When tourists flock to the Lake Bogoria National Reserve they have little idea of the high cost the Endorois have paid for their eviction. The vast majority of the community live in severe poverty, have little or no electricity, walk miles to collect water in an area stricken by drought, and are consistently dependent on relief food.

Since the creation of the wildlife reserve, the Endorois have been unable to gather the plants they once relied on for medicinal purposes, conduct religious ceremonies at their sacred sites or visit the graves of their ancestors.

Download the decision

Download CEMIRIDE statement (PDF)

MRG would to take this opportunity to thank a number of donors who have supported MRG and without whose help this case would never have been brought. Those who have contributed to the legal programme specifically include the Baring Foundation, Cordaid, Ireland Aid, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway and Finland, Matrix Causes Fund and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Donors who have supported MRG more generally with unrestricted support have also supported this work. They include SIDA, the Doen Foundation, the Sigrid Rausing Trust, the Alan & Babette Sainsbury Charitable Fund the Eva Reckitt Trust, the Pilkington General Charitable Trust, the T.H. Brunner Charitable Trust and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We would also like to thank all the staff, experts and interns who have generously contributed to our legal cases over the 8 years that it has taken to bring this case to judgement.

Notes to Editors

Interview opportunities are available with:

  • Lucy Claridge, MRG’s Head of Law
  • Wilson Kipsang Kipkazi, Endorois Welfare Council
  • Korir Sing’Oei, Co-counsel for the Endorois community and Co-founder of CEMIRIDE

To arrange interviews, please contact the MRG Press Office on [email protected]