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Kenyan tribe slowly driven off its ancestral lands

First it was colonists who put the Ogiek on reserves in Mau Forest. After freedom corrupt officials drove them out as they set up farms. Now a reforestation effort has forced them even farther away.

January 04, 2010|By Robyn Dixon

Mau Forest, Kenya — For centuries, the little-known Ogiek people foraged wild honey and used bows and arrows to hunt gazelles in the Mau Forest of Kenya.

But recently, for the second time in 16 years, they were driven from their homes and are now living in makeshift bamboo-and-plastic tents at the side of the road in a valley that long ago was part of the forest.

Their plight casts a focus on Kenya's endemic corruption and its potentially catastrophic effect on a small, powerless tribe, and the rest of the nation.

The Ogieks were first dispossessed in the 1930s by British colonists, who set aside small forest reserves for them, while taking away most of their ancestral lands. Things got worse, however, after the nation won its independence.

In 1993, the tribe, now about 36,000-strong, was forced to the edge of the forest by corrupt businessmen and politicians, who with government complicity, bulldozed trees and planted tea, raking in profits. In Kenya's biggest rain catchment, rainfall declined sharply. Wetlands and lakes at the other end of the country also began dying, including the Nakuru Lake, famous for its flamingos.

In November, the Kenyan government finally acted to save the Mau Forest. The first step: Evict the Ogiek again -- this time from their villages near the edge of the forest.

According to the Kenyan government, there is no choice in the matter. To save the forest, everyone must move.

"If encroachment and unsustainable exploitation of the forest ecosystem continues, it will only be a matter of time before the entire ecosystem is irreversibly damaged with significant socio-economic consequences and ramifications to internal security and conflict," a Kenyan government report states.

It's one thing, planting new trees. But undoing the decades of damage means untangling corrupt land deals made years ago and declawing one of Kenya's most powerful political elites, taking back the land parceled out illegally. It means taking on former President Daniel Arap Moi, his family and cronies -- some of the biggest beneficiaries of the illicit land deals. Yet it also means more woes for Moi's victims.

In Kiptagich, in the Rift Valley, a huge tea factory looms like a medieval fortress, on land that was once filled with trees. Iridescent green tea plantations carpet the surrounding hills. (Kenya's Nation newspaper reports that the factory is owned by the Moi family.)

On a nearby hill there's a stretch of forlorn bamboo-and-plastic tents: the latest home of the Ogiek.

An old woman stirs a pot of beans under the plastic roof. A malarial child hovers between life and death under a rough gray blanket. A girl rocks a toddler. The fire smokes. Rain drips in.

Chepkurui Mutai's labor pains began the day police came to their home in Kurbanyat village, ordering them to leave. She and her husband, both members of the Ogiek tribe, did not resist.

"People didn't complain. We just left."

One Ogiek villager, Philip Ngeny, said police pushed the residents with the butts of their guns. People quietly packed up, gathered their children and left the same day.

As she struggled up the hill with her husband and four children, Mutai's labor pains grew worse.

"It was so painful, I just thought if the baby comes on the way, I'll have no choice. I'll just have to accept it," said the 29-year-old.

Her baby son was born the next day in the tent. A week later, her 3-year-old daughter fell ill with malaria.

"I'm feeling bad. You can see the way we're living. I blame this government of ours, which has removed us from our village."

Philip Ngeny grew up in the forest, surviving on the honey and gazelle meat. He explains how to dig up ground honey, from bees that live in the earth. He tells how the Ogiek built hives from hollow logs and smoked out the bees, warming the hive to draw out the honey.

He remembers the words of the tribal elders, who knew the boundaries of the Ogiek land as outlined by the British colonials.

"Our elders used to tell us this forest was left to us by the colonial whites. They even took us to the marker where the whites put the boundary. They told us, 'These are the boundaries and nobody should cut down trees here,' " Ngeny, 44, says.

In 1993, in the Moi era, provincial officials burned the Ogieks' homes and beat up anyone who resisted, Ngeny recalled. They were told it was done to preserve the forest.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who took office in 2008, has referred to the land seizures in the Moi era as illicit, and an independent government inquiry set up by President Mwai Kibaki in 2003 found that Mau Forest land transfers from the 1990s were illegal. Government officials and well-connected businessmen were the main beneficiaries. The Moi clan has, in the past, denied corruption charges.

"I felt so bad," Ngeny said, "because I knew when they were subdividing that they would clear the forest and plant things. The government gave the land to people and they planted tea. Those were all government officials and powerful businessmen.

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