We want to go home. Don’t call it the forest," 74-year-old Francis arap Taribo, a member of the indigenous Ogiek community said, referring to the Mau Forest Complex, a critical water tower that is a bone of contention between the Kenyan government and forest dwellers.
Mr Taribo, a resident of Koibatek in Baringo County in Kenya’s Rift Valley, spoke recently at a gathering that brought together some 2,000 members from three of four indigenous communities in Kenya — the Ogiek, Sengwer and Endorois.
The meeting, held at Nessuit Primary School, some 30km northwest of Nakuru town, in the Rift Valley, was convened to mark one year since the Ogiek won a case at the Arusha-based African Court on Human and People’s Rights, against continuous evictions from the Mau forest, which is their ancestral homeland.
But the Kenyan government, which is fighting encroachment into water catchment areas, is seemingly reluctant to implement the ruling, and has restricted the Ogiek’s entry into the forest.
The Mau Complex is the largest indigenous mountain forest in East Africa, and is about 170 kilometres northwest of Nairobi. It covers an area of more than 650,000 acres, straddling the Nakuru, Narok and Baringo Counties in the Rift Valley.
The term “Ogiek” means “caretaker of all plants and wild animals.” For decades, the hunter-gatherer tribe has been routinely subjected to arbitrary forced evictions from the forest without compensation.
This, they say, has negatively impacted their traditional religious and cultural lifestyle. The forest dwellers survive mainly on wild fruits and roots, game hunting and traditional bee-keeping.
While evictions on the Nakuru side of the Mau have stopped since the judgement, the government is issuing new threats on the Narok side following new encroachment.
During the meeting on May 26, the general mood among the forest dwellers was that they could conserve the water tower better than the government. They accuse the government of allowing illegal logging and encroachment by wealthy individuals.
"The people who have invaded the forest from the Narok side are not Ogiek but outsiders. We only want our rights to be respected, and the government to implement the directive of the court," said the chairman of the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Programme, Daniel Kobei. "We have already identified 800 fake title deeds held by outsiders."
The legal adviser in the Office of the Deputy President Dr Maurice Singoei — also an Ogiek who first raised the issue with the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in Banjul, Gambia — said that the Kenyan government is determined to implement the judgment and has set up a taskforce to advise on the way forward.
"The judgment was very important for forest dwellers in Kenya and the whole of Africa. While Mau is a protected area, the Ogiek have the right to the forest because they have been conserving it for centuries," said Mr Singoei.
Limo Kerio, an 81-year-old from the Nakuru area, lamented that the evictions have destroyed the culture and the livelihood of the Ogiek because they have been forced to scatter in various areas.
A visit to the Nakuru side of the Mau forest reveals destruction of large chunks of the forest by loggers and settlers. The Ogiek have settled among other communities as their entry into the forest is restricted.
The court ordered the government to stop the evictions and compensate them an amount that it is yet to be determined.
The government taskforce formed in November last year, was expected to study the ruling within six months and suggest restitution in the form of original land or alternative land. Though its term has expired, the taskforce is yet to present its report.
The lawyer representing the Ogiek, Lucy Claridge, said that the court is yet to issue an order for reparations including compensation. The Ogiek and the Kenyan government have made submissions in favour of or against compensation.
"The court now has to consider these and adopt a ruling. We anticipate this will be issued within the next six months," said Ms Claridge.
The chairperson of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, Kagwiria Mbogori, said that the Ogiek’s problem is at the centre of land issues in Kenya, ranging from land tenure to land redistribution and land justice.
"The Mau Complex, which is a national treasure and a water catchment area is devastated. However, we urge the Kenyan government to obey the court order and engage the indigenous people on remedial measures," said Ms Mbogori.
Besides the Ogiek, Amnesty International recently released a report accusing the Kenyan government of continued eviction of the Sengwer, who live in Embobut Forest in Elgeyo Marakwet County also in the Rift Valley. The evictions that started in December 2017 have led to the loss of land, livelihoods and access to cultural practices.
Chris Chapman, who wrote the report, said that the evictions lead to a vicious circle in which the community is forced to cut down more trees to rebuild after the government burns houses, thereby contributing to further deforestation.
In 2010, the Endorois in Baringo County, also won a case against the Kenyan government, when the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights found it guilty of violating their rights by evicting them from their lands to make room for a wildlife reserve in the 1970s.
The other indigenous community in Kenya is the Boni, who inhabit Pandanguo in Lamu County on the Coast.