A number of Ogiek communities from Chepkitale, in the Mount Elgon Forest of Western Kenya, affiliated with CICADA through the Chepkitale Indigenous Development Project (CIDP) and the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), have come forward at the international level to share their struggles with forced evictions due to national conservation initiatives, as well as the creation of game reserves.
From colonial times the communities have faced exclusionary measures guided by modern conservationist thought. In the 1930s, forest reserves were created around Mt. Elgon, resulting in the eviction of a significant number of Ogiek households into a “native reserve”, representing only a small portion of their ancestral territory around the forest.
After Kenya’s independence in 1963, tutelage of the Mt. Elgon Forest remained at the hands of the government. As a result, in 1968, the Mount Elgon National Park was founded, in addition to two forest reserves and a game reserve, again based on principles which excluded the traditional hunter-gatherer activities of the Ogiek.
Peter Kitelo, CICADA partner, representative of the Chepkitale Indigenous People’s Development Project and speaker at the CICADA 2016 Meeting, began advocacy work against these forced evictions in 2000, when it became clear to him that authorities were actively trying to obstruct meetings around discussions on land struggles. He explains at the 2016 Meeting:
This is when Kitelo realized that his struggle would bring him beyond just public meetings. As a response to the authorities’ opposition to Ogiek resistance, Kitelo and his partners decided to defend their actions through the institutional creation of the CIPDP. A crucial role of the organization is to legitimize traditional Ogiek practices and territory through the creation of official community documents and community mapping. Such strategies have allowed them to claim sovereignty in a language understood by governmental authorities. In 2013, the Chepkitale community met to officially document their customary bylaws, allowing them to exist in an often oppressive and bureaucratic space.
Kitelo’s work also focuses on the constitutional protection of traditional livelihoods. His advocacy work, which began in 2000, was a period Kitelo described as a “time of constitutional-making in Kenya”, allowing for advocacy groups to voice feedback toward the creation of new clauses in the constitutions which would more seriously consider land struggles.
Today, Kitelo’s fight is far from over. Ogiek households are still facing threats of eviction, and having their houses and belongings burned by government authorities even during times of negotiation. Kitelo and the CIPDP are resorting to legal action in order to halt forced evictions on ancestral lands.
Justin Kenrick of the Forest Peoples Programme echoed Kitelo’s words at the 2016 CICADA Meeting by stating that “governments are not protecting habitats. But that’s the story that we’re told. That we have to pay the human rights price.” The Forest Peoples Programme started working with the Ogiek when threats of eviction resurfaced in 2011 after members of the community continued coming back to their own lands in Chepkitale, which was now considered Trust Land by the Mount Elgon County Council.
Kenrick agrees with Kitelo’s sentiment that the main struggle affecting local populations is tenure security, which is threatened by national and international efforts to conserve and protect parcels of land from their own inhabitants. For this reason, the FPP appealed to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in order to pilot the Whakatane Mechanism – an assessment of the negative impacts of conservation projects on local populations. Although the assessment concluded that “the Ogiek have a positive relationship with their natural environment and indicated that community structures, presence and livelihood practices contribute to protecting the forest, moorland and fauna”, forced evictions continue in Chepkitale. However, impact has been noted for Ogiek communities in other localities, as the African Court has “categorically stated that the Mau Forest is the Ogiek Ancestral home”.