Forest dwellers turn paralegals to keep ancestral land | Land Portal

By: Sophie Mbugua

Source: BRACED


SESIMWANI, Kenya – Birds sing, feet shuffle, as women and men of all ages emerge from spreading canopies of green.

Dressed in gumboots and carrying umbrellas, they hurry towards the Olodomut Nursery School in Sesimwani village, in Kenya’s Mau Forest. The community land mobiliser has called a meeting for the entire Ogiek community to discuss its by-laws.  

The Ogiek, a hunting and gathering community, have been living in the Mau Forest complex – Kenya’s largest block of forest cover, at the centre of the Rift Valley province – for decades.

 “The forest is very important for our community,” said Veronica Ngusilwa, one of the school’s teachers. “We collect wild fruit, firewood and use particular trees and shrubs for medication”.

The Ogiek, however, have lacked recognition since colonial times, leading to their political, social and economic marginalisation, according to Daniel Kobei, executive director of the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Programme (OPDP).

The Mau Forest lost great chunks of land through excisions by the Kenyan government for agricultural and settlement purposes, with the land now replaced with maize plantations. The UN Environmental Programme reported the destruction of over 100,000 hectares between 1990 and 2001 – the latest figures available.

“The government periodically hives off large chunks of forest land, allegedly for ‘landless’ Kenyans but actually for distribution to powerful, well-connected individuals,” said Kobei.



The OPDP, supported by the Namati Community Land Protection Programme, is training the Ogiek to map and document their ancestral land and create by-laws that will govern them in preparation for the passing of the 2015 Community Land Bill.

 “We believe that if the Ogiek are recognised as co-managers of the land by the government, destruction of the Mau forest complex will be reduced significantly,” said Kobei.

When the bill is enacted – which is expected for August 2016 – the 67 percent of the country’s community land will be officially registered. This will enable communities such as the Ogiek to secure land rights and be issued with a title deed, believes Kobei.

The OPDP has been educating the Ogiek on various legislation such as the Constitution, the Community Land Bill and the Kenya Forest Services Act – among others – as well as on international legislation like the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The community votes on by-laws once they have passed legal checks to ensure they abide by existing local, national and international laws. The laws are then adopted if they reap two-thirds of votes.

Ngusilwa hopes that the documentation of the by-laws will strengthen the traditional values of the Ogiek community. “The by-laws serve as a reminder of traditions, especially to younger generations,” she said.

She also sees an opportunity to develop by-laws safeguarding women and girls’ rights, and hopes the community will be issued with a title deed to help them improve their infrastructure.

For example, a bridge over the Sigider river would shorten children’s daily walk to school, currently standing at three kilometres.

However, Mac Odera, assistant Ecosystem Conservator at the Kenya Forest Services in Nakuru County, believes the Ogiek’s lifestyle is a threat to conservation and wishes they were allocated land outside of the forest.

“They are now farming using modern practices such as pesticides, which threatens forest recovery,” he said.   

He suggests the Ogiek join other Community Forest Associations to help monitor illegal activities in the forest, while living on its periphery.

Kobei, however, believes that “allocating land outside of the forest to the Ogiek would imply the government doesn’t want them to be part of the forest.”

“All we are asking is for the government to give us back our home where our ancestors live, let us own it, and we will protect it as we have always done,” he added.

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