NEWS 2009

December 07, 2009

Kenya urged to address resettlement of forest dwellers

By: George Conger

The Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) has called for the government to take a “humane approach” to the problem of the resettlement of traditional forest dwellers in the country’s national parks.

On Nov 28 Archbishop Eliud Wabukala criticized the government’s eviction of 1900 Ogiek families from the 400,000 hectare Mau forest, saying it was “grossly inhumane” that they had been removed from their homes and “left to live on the road-sides. Such people should be given alternative settlement.” 

“We recognize that the government has a duty to protect the environment. To this end the intention to reverse the destruction of Mau complex is noble,” the Archbishop said, but the government should also respect the rights of indigenous peoples. 

The Mau forest controversy has also taken on political overtones, with MPs from the Rift Valley calling for a vote of no confidence on Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s handling of the controversy.

The Mau forest is Kenya’s primary watershed and its deforestation has led to the drying up of lakes and rivers that water the Serengeti plains in Tanzania and Kenya. 

To reduce the loss of forest habitat, the government has begun removing the Ogiek people from the reserve along with squatters from the surrounding lowlands. A forest dwelling people, the Ogiek are subsistence farmers and hunter/gatherers. 

Between 1904 and 1918 the British colonial government tried to expel the Ogiek from the forest. The forest was set aside as a preserve in 1932 and the colonial government in 1941 sought to remove them but succeeded only in driving them deeper into the forest.

In 1972 the Kenyan government expelled the Ogiek, but most moved back into the forest within six months. Expulsion campaigns have been mounted in 1987 and in 1992, but have been unsuccessful. While the government has focused its efforts on the Ogiek, the forest has suffered from extensive logging and livestock grazing. A government plan to settle the Ogiek on five-acre plots of land has drawn sharp criticism from NGOs as the bulk of the land has so far been given to migrants from outside the forest. 

Member of Parliament Julius Kones told the Kenyan press there had been consultation among the leaders of three political parties to bring a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister over his handling of the evictions. 

“It is absurd that Mr Odinga is happy to see squatters being removed from their farms without compensation or being resettled, yet it had been agreed in the Cabinet and Parliament that either of the options had to be fulfilled before the evictions were carried out,” Dr Kones charged. 

However, the Prime Minister said those calling for his removal were “shedding crocodile tears” and were interested in consolidating their own power rather than taking the hard choices on preserving the environment.

Archbishop Wabukala called “upon all politicians to stop playing politics with this issue. Protection of the people of Kenya and the environment are not just matters of politics but of life and death.” 

“Politics should not be played” in finding the right balance between the rights of indigenous peoples and environmental needs, the Archbishop said.