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‘We Are Living in Absolute Fear’: Call to Stop Indigenous Evictions in Rift Valley

Human rights groups are calling for the Kenyan government to halt forced evictions of the Indigenous Ogiek community from their ancestral land in the Rift Valley. “We are calling for an immediate cessation of ongoing demolitions and the evictions,” said Cyrus Maweu, deputy director of Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR).

Long-running tensions between the community and the Kenyan government resurfaced this month when rangers from Kenya’s wildlife and forest services began forcing the Ogiek out of their homes in the Mau forest. Community leaders estimate roughly 400 houses have been demolished, leaving families displaced or seeking shelter from recent rains in makeshift structures.

“We are living in absolute fear,” said Daniel Kobei, the executive director of the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program. “The first day they started bringing down houses using axes, hammers and pangas [machetes]. They brought down the school, and on the second day they even started burning some houses. Now, they have gone back with heavy machines to bring down houses that were not completely destroyed …. They are really bringing down everything.”

Community leaders fear that houses of cultural significance may be destroyed. “This kind of destruction can bring the extinction of a community,” said Kobei.

The community has faced systemic evictions from the Mau forest – Kenya’s largest water tower – for decades. After a prolonged court battle between the Ogiek and the Kenyan government, the African court on Human and Peoples’ Rights found in 2017 that the Ogiek had ancestral land rights to the Mau forest and could rightfully occupy it. In a 2022 reparations judgment, the court ordered the Kenyan government to delimit, demarcate and offer the Ogiek titles to the territory they traditionally lived in.

Rights groups and Ogiek leaders said the government’s implementation of the landmark judgments had been slow and left them open to continuing violations.

The recent slate of Ogiek evictions in the Sasimwani and Nkareta areas of the forest follows directives by the Kenyan president, William Ruto, last month ordering security agencies to remove illegal settlers. Protecting Mau forest resources was necessary to fight the climate crisis, Ruto said, and any illegal settlers removed would be allocated land.

Authorities have long maintained that evictions are necessary to protect the Mau ecosystem from heavy deforestation caused by illegal logging and the clearing of land for farming. They have also argued that the encroachment puts at risk important water resources that millions of Kenyans rely on.

“The concerns are valid, but it does not mean that conservation cannot coexist with human rights,” said Maweu. “It’s about looking for a human-rights-based approach to conservation. It does not have to be exclusionary.”

Some of those settled in parts of the forest have titles to land in the Mau forest, the validity of which are contested. Competing claims complicate the long-running dispute, rights groups say, and indiscriminate evictions are affecting the Ogiek communities’ land rights.

In a statement this week, Kenya’s national rights commission said it was “perturbed” by the ongoing evictions, which were being done “without the prior profiling and identification of genuine forest dwelling communities”.

Source: The Guardian