On 26th May 2017, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights delivered a landmark judgment against the Kenyan government in a case brought before it by the Ogiek Indigenous People. According to the court, the Kenyan government has violated several articles 1, 2, 8, 14, 17, 21 and 22 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Article 21 states “All peoples shall freely dispose of their wealth and natural resources. This right shall be exercised in the exclusive interest of the people. In no case shall a people be deprived of it.” This eight-year legal battle was itself a continuation of other legal battles that date back to the colonial era in the 1930s when the Ogiek people were exterminated and driven from their ancestral lands to pave way for colonial settlers. The Ogiek have also lost land through declarations that treat it as forest reserves. The British on the other hand failed to recognize the community as a tribe, which could have entitled them to land.
“For the Ogiek, this is history in the making. The issue of Ogiek land rights has finally been heard and the case has empowered them to feel relevant. I know that the case also gives hope to other indigenous peoples: it has made the issues seem real,” said Daniel Kobei, Executive Director of the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program (OPDP).
Martin Lele, Ogiek elder and Chairman of Marioshoni Community Development CBO, added: “Over the years, we have been subjected to torture, through forced eviction from our ancestral lands without consultation or even compensation. To the Ogiek, the forest is the single most important resource and a means of livelihood: we depend on it for food, shelter, medicine and most of our traditional rituals are practiced in the forest. We are very happy about the ruling but without implementation, it might not have the desired impact. We therefore hope that the Kenyan government will respect the court’s decision.”
Up to 2.5 billion people, including 370 million indigenous people, depend on land and natural resources that are held, used or managed collectively. This accounts for more than 50% of the world’s land surface, but there is formally recognized ownership of just 10%. This leaves a third of the world’s population vulnerable to land dispossession by more powerful actors.
About 35,000 of the Ogiek live in the Mau Forest Complex in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province. They are hunter-gatherers whose main activity is apiculture, but some also grow crops and raise animals. They practice traditional methods of conservation that are passed down from generation to generation, such as selective hunting. This makes them among the last forest-dwelling communities and one of the most marginalized communities in Kenya.
For many years, the Kenyan government has threatened to evict them in the name of conservation and deforestation prevention. In 2009, the Kenyan Forest Service (KFS) dealt a blow to the Ogiek and others within the forest complex by issuing an eviction order, but deforestation is mainly carried out by non-Ogiek communities and timber companies. Grasslands dotted with tree stumps, neat fields of wheat and maize and large tea plantations have rapidly replaced the once thick Mau Forest.
Frederick Lesingo, a producer of the Ogiek Honey Presidium, told us: “We incurred a lot of losses during the process but we hope that the government will compensate us. Since the court decision, we shave started holding meetings with the community, members of the Community Forest Associations (CFAs) and other stakeholders to come up with a forest management plan. This will be shared with the government officials. We will also ensure that the outsiders who have continued to destroy our forest are kept out.”
According to the court, the Kenyan government has violated the Ogiek people’s rights to land, religion, culture, development and freedom from discrimination. The court also recognized the Mau Forest as the Ogiek community’s ancestral home and the role they play in protecting it. There was no any evidence that the community had participated in any illegal activities in the forest that could justify their eviction. The government has been given six months to issue reparations and compensation.
Slow Food Kenya has been working with the Ogiek community to promote their honey. It was started in part to protect the Mau Forest ecosystem and promote the value of the Ogiek people’s ancestral culture through their flagship product: honey. The MACODEV cooperative, which brings together 12 groups of beekeepers, is working to increase production volumes, differentiate the various types of honey produced, improve packaging and promote the honey in shops, restaurants and hotels. Since 2015 the Ogiek community has taken part in responsible tourism initiatives in collaboration with the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity and the Network for Ecofarming in Africa (NECOFA).
Slow Food welcomes this landmark decision as a victory not only for the Ogiek community but for all indigenous communities across the continent. We will continue to work with them to ensure that their voices are heard.
Photos: Minority Rights, Africa Review