Kenya’s government have been accused of illegally evicting members of the Ogiek community from the Mau Forest once again. The Ogiek are a 20,000-strong community of hunter-gatherers who have lived in the area ‘since time immemorial’, and whose rights to live in the Mau Forest as their ancestral lands were confirmed by the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2017. Despite this, they are being forcibly evicted from their homes by the national government. Daniel Kobei, the Founder and Executive Director of the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program (OPDP), has called the latest situation ‘a humanitarian crisis’. According to the OPDP, officers from the Kenya Forestry Service began pulling down houses on 2nd November 2023, forcing out inhabitants and causing significant damage to properties and food stores. Esther Ngusilo, a member of the Ogiek people, told thousands that she has ‘nowhere to go’ via a heartfelt video posted by the OPDP on X (formerly Twitter). So far, around 700 people have been affected.
This is not the first time that the Ogiek have had such measures imposed upon them; cases from as far back as 2009 show that the battle between the Kenyan government and the indigenous Ogiek population has been long-fought. In 2022, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights awarded the Ogiek people more than USD 1.3million as reparations for breaches of their rights committed by the Kenyan government.
The Kenyan government claims that these operations are for the purpose of protecting and conserving the area; these evictions are usually attempted on the premise that the Ogiek are degrading the land upon which they live. However, Lucy Claridge, director of the International Lawyers Project, voiced her suspicions that this latest move stems from the Kenyan government’s desire to capitalise on the financial opportunities presented by the Mau Forest’s appeal to carbon-offsetting companies. Trees can sequester (capture or remove) carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis; carbon offsetting schemes mean that an individual or organisation, such as a government, can pay another party to offset their emissions through a number of measures, such as planting trees. Dr Justin Kenrick from the Forest People’s Programme has linked the Kenyan government’s actions to its promise of climate action, saying that ‘[t]he Mau is Kenya’s biggest forest and in our view it’s clear that the interest shown by offsetting companies is prompting the Kenyan Government to assert its control’. Additionally, studies have shown that conservation efforts led by local communities and indigenous peoples are highly effective, due to the invaluable firsthand knowledge and experience of those living in the area. Survival International, a human rights charity that campaigns for the rights of indigenous peoples, argues that ‘when the Ogiek are removed, their forest is not protected but rather exploited by logging and tea plantations – some owned by government officials’. In this light, the government’s reasoning behind the eviction of the Ogiek people seems little justified.
People from across the world and from various sectors – such as NGOs and environmental scientists – are speaking out against the actions of Kenya’s government, but how this latest set of sudden evictions will be resolved remains to be seen.