NEWS 2009

December 04, 2009

Eviction imminent for Ogiek tribe in Kenya

Madeline Lambelet

Disease. Corrupt politics. Invasive spread of industries. Disdain from fellow countrymen. Abusive attacks. The Ogiek people of Kenya have survived it all, but a new opponent may be too much. 

The Ogiek have lived in the Mau Forest for centuries and are some of the last remaining groups that live off traditional hunting and gathering. Now, a government plan to evict thousands of people from the forest is threatening their cultural existence. "This is very serious; the Ogiek have nowhere else to go," said Kiplanget Cheruyot of the Ogiek People's Development Program told Survival International in an interview. "People are crying about the eviction. The government said it would spare no one, not even a goat or a chicken." 

The eviction plan has already begun receiving criticism from Ogiek supporters, as well as environmentalists. Over the past 15 years, the forest has already lost 25 percent of its trees, according to The New York Times, which has caused substantial environmental concerns and has raised doubts about the government's intentions. The Kenyan government is removing all people, not just the Ogieks from the forest in order to preserve, and gain access to a vital water source. While there are other groups living in the forest, the Ogiek have long been seen as protectors of the forest and have a lot to lose. 

The government claims that the evictions will allow them to plant millions of trees that will help regulate and conserve water flow throughout the country. However, due to a long history of corruption, many feel that the move is geared towards benefiting special interests. 

"The government wants that forest for economic reasons, not conservation reasons," said Towett Kimaiyo, a leader of the Ogieks, to The New York Times. "The only people who are going to benefit are the saw-millers." 

Senior Muhanji Afanda, a native of Kenya, explained the delicate nature of dealing with this situation with Kenya's unstable politics.

"The Prime Minister says that the best way to go about this is not to have any preferences to any particular tribe, but instead evict all and then hope that they shall be resettled with accordance to the plan that was put in place by politicians in parliament," said Afanda. 

Whether the eviction of the Ogieks and others is ethically wrong is difficult to claim. Due to the reserves of water in the forest, the government argues that the removal will work out for the best in the long-term. 

Adding to the difficulty is the hectic nature of Kenyan politics following election violence in 2007 and 2008. Prime Minister Raila Odinga and President Mwai Kibaki are political competitors and have somewhat hostile relations. 

Afanda expressed the complicated nature of the Kenyan government, how there are those working for the Prime Minister who wish to see him fail in this political move. Their disapproval could influence others to see only the negative sides of this eviction instead of how it could help the country. 

The situation is stressed even further because the Kenyan government is working within an already complex situation, created by the British when they were evicting people from their lands for timber companies. 

"In Africa, a lot of problems stem back from when the British were going around displacing people from their original homes and not coming up with a way to settle them without interrupting other communities," said Afanda. 

He went on to explain that many different tribes were uprooted during the British stay in the 1930s and encouraged to move into the Mau Forest with promises of jobs and land. Now the land is needed for environmental preservation and the people have nowhere to go. 

Since the Ogiek people are not the only inhabitants of the forest, the difficulty of defending their right to stay on the land increases. The Ogiek are ancient settlers of the land, but a lot of impostors have begun to claim to be Ogiek in hopes of remaining. To evict only the impostors would cause many more problems than they solve, warned Afanda. 

"Given that Kenya is a multilingual society, you never want to start making it into a tribal-targeting sort of thing," said Afanda. "Because that will be the beginning of doom for such a beautiful nation."