Communities demand chance at forest conservation

Tuesday, August 11th, 2020 00:00 | By
Ogiek community at a past function. Photo/PD/HARRIET JAMES

Harriet James @harriet86jim

As cold weather prevails and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic are felt all across the country, in Mau forest, the Ogiek community, who claim the forest is their ancestral land are languishing in pain.

Over 300 of their homes have been demolished by the Kenya Forest Services (KFS), their homes, farms and livestock destroyed. 

On the other side, the Sengwer who live deep in Embobut Forest in the Cherangany Hills, have experienced the same thing.

In both cases, the government has claimed the evictions are for conservation of the two forests, the main water catchment areas feeding lakes Nakuru, Victoria and Natron. 

Yet, there is growing evidence that honouring land rights is the foundation for conserving forests sustainably.

Conservation experts say governments should adopt this new trend when it comes to dealing with indigenous communities. 

“These communities are experiencing difficulties because of the evictions, which are affecting lands meant for development.

These are lands communities lay claim through the Community Lands Act,” says Peter Kitelo in a webinar, Illegal Evictions of Kenya Communities during Covid-19.

Kitelo is a representative of the Elgon Ogiek community, Bungoma county and Chair of the Community Land Action Now network. 

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs of Indigenous People says indigenous communities around the world make up around five per cent of the global population and occupy, own or manage an estimated 20-25 per cent of the land surface on earth.

This space holds the remaining bit of Earth’s biodiversity and intersects with about 40 per cent of all terrestrial protected areas and ecologically intact landscapes. 

It is estimated that 50 per cent of protected areas worldwide has been established on traditional territories of indigenous peoples, yet custodianship of the environment and ecosystems, and rights to land and natural resources of these communities are unrecognised.

They often face negative impacts of conservation programmes, often based on protecting biological resources, land and seascapes, while excluding human beings. 

Community co-management

“This issue has brought conflicts we are seeing between human and nature. It’s clear that communities are interested in preserving and conserving their environment.

We are used to the top-down approach and clinging on to notion that governments have responsibility and privilege of protecting forests and other resources,” said Maryama Farah of Natural Justice

Globally, the trend is moving towards communities’ co-management and conservation.

More countries are recognising this can be done through secure land tenure when communities own the land they claim is theirs.  

In Kenya Article 63 of the Constitution recognises such community lands.

Community Land Law, 2016, binds communities to protect their forests and other resources, but these communities cannot implement such as government is slow in surveying and titling lands. 

Plan of action

In May 2017, the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights declared the Ogiek were not responsible for the depletion of the Mau Forest, and its conservation could not be used to justify their eviction, nor could it be used to deny them their rights to practise their traditional livelihoods.

The court also ruled the Mau Complex was indeed the ancestral land of the Ogiek, to which they, therefore, hold rights.

It asked the Ogiek and the Government of Kenya to put forward proposals for working with this reality. 

The Ogiek submitted a plan of action to the court. The plan respects and protects Ogiek as owner-conservators, issuing them with community land titles subject to rigorous conservation conditions.

It also states that most of their ancestral land within these domains will be designated as protected community forests and habitation limited to natural glades and moorlands.

They also outlined how they will work with KFS to zone and manage the forest.

But three years on, the government has failed to make submissions, causing the African Court reparations hearing to be postponed until September 2020.

“The issue is government’s failure to define boundaries. It is pushing people out of their homes without solutions yet  communities are open to negotiate, but they are not being given that chance,” laments Mali Ole Kaunga, representative of the Il Ngwesi community in Laikipia.

The Sengwer too are pursuing justice in the courts, although they have appealed repeatedly to enter a practical ‘win-win’ partnership with KFS as accountable on-site guardians, as have the Mau Ogiek and Elgon Ogiek.

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