Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Hunter-gatherer communities, including the Ogiek, Sengwer and Yaaku peoples, have long faced marginalisation and exclusion.
The largest of these, the Ogiek, comprise about two dozen ethno-linguistic groups, living in or near the highland forests of central Kenya. Traditionally hunter-gatherers and still dependent on forest resources, most are primarily involved in agriculture and/or pastoralism. Many Ogiek have land rights on the fringes of forests, but government policies of converting communal land to individual ownership led to much of it being sold off to others, jeopardizing the long-term position of Ogiek.
Aweer (Dahalo) are traditional hunter-gatherers, numbering about 3,500, living in the Lamu district of eastern Kenya and largely dependent on shifting agriculture which is more destructive of wildlife and forest resources than the hunting which has been banned by the government in the name of conservation. Poor rainfall has resulted in chronic nutritional shortages; insecurity in this border region has grown even greater following the wars in Somalia, rendering government services almost nonexistent. Most men have left the region in search of work.
Deprived of their ancestral lands, the Boni community living close to Lamu on the North-Eastern coast, has been ravaged by famine. The drought hitting the area had been blamed – but the marginalized position of this small community meant that no official had paid the slightest bit of attention to their starvation, and they had not received any state assistance.
From the beginning of the colonial era, hunter-gatherers were routinely dispossessed of their highland savannahs, which were teeming with wildlife and often deemed uninhabited by people. Colonial administrators in Kenya encouraged the assimilation of hunter-gatherers into larger tribes, a policy that continued after independence. Today the Kenyan government recognizes 42 tribes in Kenya, but categorizes hunter-gatherers as ‘other’, or simply lumps them together with neighbouring peoples. For example, the 1989 and 1999 censuses counted Ogiek as either Maasai or Kalenjin. Indeed hunter-gatherers in Kenya became so marginalized that many adopted the pejorative labels others used for them to refer to themselves. Until a recent trend toward re-adopting their proper names, many hunter-gatherers accepted the Maasai term ‘Dorobo’ or the Somali term ‘Boni’, both of which mean ‘people who have nothing’ or ‘primitive’.
Indigenous peoples have continued to lose forest land to logging and clearing for agriculture, while in recent years also facing prohibitions on hunting, in the name of wildlife preservation. In 2005, Kenyan police burned down some Ogiek settlements in the Mau forest, and the government has failed to provide hunter-gatherers with even rudimentary services, such as access to healthcare. Hunter-gatherer peoples have almost no political representation in Kenya.
The same year, a draft Constitution proposed by the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission after three years of exhaustive consultations included the recognition of hunter-gatherers and other marginalized Kenyans, as well as a bill of rights and the devolution of power. Hunter-gatherer peoples strongly supported the draft, but the Kenyan parliament gutted all such provisions from the draft that was eventually rejected by voters in a referendum.
Hunter-gatherer groups were disappointed when the new power-sharing government also failed in their demand to be nominated to a ‘special interest’ seat. In the run-up to the 2007 vote, the Hunter-Gatherer Forum which represents the Ogiek, the Yaaku, the Sengwer, the El Molo and the Awer, wrote letters to the officials at the main political parties, telling them of the need for nominated MPs. However, when the reserved seats where allocated, none went to the hunter-gatherer communities. The Ogiek were, however, encouraged by the new attempts to get the ‘settler’ communities – which they claimed had stolen their traditional territory – expelled from the Mau forest. The destruction of this precious woodland, cleared by loggers and small-scale farmers, led to serious depletion of a vital water catchment area.
The situation of the Ogiek has in recent years attracted international attention due to the community’s protracted litigation against the Kenyan government following its issuance of a 30-day eviction notice to the Ogiek in the Mau Forest, demanding that they leave the forest. Concerned that this was a perpetuation of the historical land injustices already suffered and having failed to resolve these injustices through repeated national litigation and advocacy efforts, the Ogiek decided to lodge a case against their government before the Commission, with the assistance of Minority Rights Group International, Ogiek Peoples’ Development Programme and CEMIRIDE. In November 2009, the Commission, citing the far-reaching implications on the political, social and economic survival of the Ogiek community and the potential irreparable harm if the eviction notice was actioned, issued an Order for Provisional Measures requesting the government to suspend implementation of the eviction notice. The Ogiek were not evicted on that occasion, but their precarious situation continued, and in the years that followed the community were obliged to take further legal action that again concluded that Kenyan authorities suspend its activities. However, evictions, harassment and intimidation of Ogiek continued, including a violent eviction of approximately 1,000 Ogiek and police intimidation in March 2016.
In May 2017, the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights ruled in favour of the Ogiek regarding forced evictions in the Mau Forest. This outcome meant that the Court recognized the role that Ogiek and other indigenous groups in Africa play as guardians of local ecosystems, and in conserving and protecting land and natural resources.
This decision was the first time, in over a decade of operation, that the African Court ruled in favour of an indigenous people. By judging that through a persistent denial of Ogiek land rights, their religious and associated cultural and hunter-gatherer practices were also violated, the Court has sent a clear message to African governments that they must respect the rights of indigenous peoples.
Meanwhile, Kenyan Forest Service guards have also been responsible for the repeated forced removals of the Sengwer community from their land in the Cherangany Hills area of the Embobut Forest. The evictions occurred as part of the World Bank-financed Natural Resource Management Project (NRMP). According to an investigation by the LA Times, the World Bank knew as early as 2010 about the removals in conjunction with its Natural Resource Management Project (NRMP) and warned the Kenyan government in 2011 that it would take action if they continued; however, the house-burnings and evictions persisted but no action was taken. A revealing report by the World Bank Inspection Panel in May 2014, while exonerating the Bank from direct responsibility, concluded that it had failed to follow the ‘spirit and letter’ of its own policies by failing to safeguard the rights of the indigenous Sengwer or mitigate the risk of violations by the Kenya Forest Service in the implementation of the project. In light of the report, the World Bank scheduled a meeting with the representatives of Kenya’s Ministry of Environment, Water, and Natural Resources, the International Union for Conservation of nature (IUCN) and the Sengwer community in March 2015. A week before the colloquium however, allegations emerged of a fresh wave of house burnings by government authorities. The subsequent talks were condemned by Sengwer representatives as a cosmetic process that failed to improve the security of the community. The EU’s new €31 million Water Tower Protection and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Project in the same location looks set to continue the destruction. At the beginning of December 2016, the Kenyan government announced that all Sengwer would be evicted by the end of the year. And in the days after an EU delegation visited the community in spring 2017, a further 90 homes were reportedly destroyed.
Updated January 2018
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