Green smokescreen for eviction of forest people

'We refuse to give up hoping. This is still our home' Ogiek man, 2000

The Nairobi High Court was packed to the roof. Behind the row of advocates in their wigs and gowns sat the representatives of the Ogiek community of forest-dwellers and honey-gatherers, also formally dressed in fur cloaks and head-dresses decorated with cowrie shells. Around them were people from other Ogiek communities, there out of solidarity, and dressed in what is nowadays their everyday wear: the Euro-American hand-me-downs of the African poor. The crowd of other people present – the journalists, human rights observers, and members of the Kenyan public – showed how much interest this case had aroused.

Together we waited for the final judgement on a lawsuit that has been going on since May 1999: was the Kenyan Government within its rights in evicting 5,000 Ogiek tribespeople from Tinet Forest? Tinet, about 250 kilometres west of Nairobi, is part of the much larger Mau Forest, ancestral home of the Ogiek people.

The advocates for the Ogiek had argued that Tinet was the ancestral land of the community; that nine years ago the government had agreed that they should remain there and granted them each a five-acre plot; and that depriving them of access to the forest and its products infringed their right to life and livelihood. Survival supporters and others had written from all over the world on their behalf.

But – when they finally appeared – judges Samuel Oguk and Richard Kuloba dismissed the Ogiek's case and found that they had no right whatever to continue living in Tinet. The tone of the judgment was harsh and contemptuous, as though the judges were determined not only to deny the title of the Tinet Ogiek, but to frighten off any other group of people who might try to make a similar claim.

The judges both dismissed the claim of the Ogiek to be indigenous to Tinet, and denied the fact that tracts of land have already been given to powerful non-Ogiek individuals. The authorities, they said, had belatedly recognised that Tinet is a water catchment area as well as a gazetted forest and conservation area, and so had lawfully revoked their earlier plan to let the Ogiek remain.

The judgement climaxed in an outburst of environmental rhetoric clearly aimed at enlisting the support of the green lobby. 'The eviction is for the purpose of saving the whole of Kenya from a possible environmental disaster.' The Ogiek, the judges alleged, had engaged in 'massive developments' which disqualify them from living in the forest. One would think that they had constructed vast shopping malls rather than scattered wooden schoolhouses and little one-room stores, and that these were the principal threat to Kenya's environment.

Nothing was said about the real threats – the huge logging operations which are still destroying other parts of the Mau forest in defiance of the logging ban recently imposed by the government, the tea plantations owned by a company belonging to President Moi, or the intensive cultivation of flowers for export. There was no mention of the handsome house and large estate owned by Zakayo Cheruiyot, Permanent Secretary for Provincial Administration and Internal Security in the Office of the President. Nobody has proposed to evict him. Observers have little doubt that interests like these are the real forces behind the judgment.

The Ogiek have had a severe blow. Some women were in tears. But the community remain defiant. They are appealing against the judgment. One man said, 'We refuse to give up hoping – Tinet is still our home.'