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NAIROBI, Sep 15 2004 (IPS) - It’s probably fair to say that the plight of the Ogiek receives little attention on a continent with more than its share of political and economic crises.
The Ogiek are "one of the few remaining hunter-gatherer peoples of East Africa" according to Survival International – a British-based organisation that fights for the rights of indigenous communities.
About 20,000 Ogiek live in the Mau Forest in Kenya’s Rift Valley province, and also in Mount Elgon Forest in the western part of the country. Apart from pursuing their traditional activities of hunting and gathering, they also harvest honey from hives placed in trees.
However, the Ogiek’s way of life has come under attack in both pre- and post-independence Kenya. Since the end of colonial rule, this conflict has mostly taken the form of clashes with the Kenya African National Union (KANU) – which governed the country from independence in 1963 until 2002.
Authorities sought to remove the Ogiek from their ancestral lands, on the grounds that the community was responsible for environmental degradation. According to the Ogiek Welfare Council (OWC), this conflict intensified from the late 1990s, when government announced plans to open (or "de-gazette") sections of the Mau forest for commercial activity and settlement.
Many viewed this as an attempt to provide land to members of the neighbouring Nandi community in a bid to gain support for government. The Ogiek are also reported to have fought with members of the western Pok people over land rights.
As OWC Chairman Joseph Towett remarked in 2001, "The settlement of other people on our land is meant to create tension and deny us any right to the land. The so-called de-gazettement will not only lead to destruction of the forest, but (also) large-scale interference (with) the Mau ecology."
The Ogiek went to court on several occasions to defend their lands; however, the KANU government pressed ahead with opening up the Mau in the face of various court orders to the contrary.
OWC co-ordinator Joseph Sang told IPS Thursday that about 400 people have now been allocated land in the eastern Mau, leading to a displacement of hundreds of Ogiek. Extensive forest degradation had also taken place, he added, because of widespread logging.
According to Survival International, the establishment of tea plantations poses a further threat to the forest.
"(The Ogiek) struggle is justified. They are a forest-dwelling community that has lived harmoniously with the forest ecosystem," says Boniface Mbugua, an member of the Kenya Land Alliance, an umbrella body that pushes for land reform.
"To try to de-link them (the Ogiek and the forest) is to be unjust," he told IPS.
Sang says the situation of the Ogiek has been worsened by the fact that the group lacks representation in parliament and other decision-making structures.
"In fact we do not have a member of parliament. We have never had any. The highest political leader we have ever had in Kenya’s post independence history is a councilor, who is currently serving, while the topmost civil servant we have is a chief," Sang notes.
"As you know, these positions do not have teeth to make any decisions. So you can see how we do not have anyone to fight for our interests," he adds. "What can you call a parliament of 222 members with none from the Ogiek community? Is this not marginalisation of the highest order?"
However, the ascent to power of a new party – the National Rainbow Coalition led by Mwai Kibaki – has brought with it hope, of a sort.
Under the new government, which won elections in December 2002, a new constitution has been drafted that defends the rights of minority groups in Kenya.
A clause in chapter six of the draft constitution says, "The State shall take legislative measures to put in place affirmative action programmes, designed to benefit marginalised groups and communities."
"(These) shall include measures to ensure that marginalised groups and communities participate and are fully represented in governance and in all other spheres of national life," the draft adds. It also states that minority groups will be assisted in maintaining their cultural values and practices.
Wrangles within NARC over the way in which the new constitution divides power between the presidency and a proposed prime minister have derailed the constitution’s progress. Although the document was endorsed earlier this year by the National Constitutional Conference, it has yet to be tabled before parliament.
Nonetheless, members of the Ogiek believe it may improve their situation. The conduct of NARC has also encouraged confidence in other respects.
"The government of the day has respected the court orders and as a result, demarcation has stopped. In fact, we do not see people coming here for settlement. Again, logging has reduced," Sang says.
Measures have also been instituted to check illegal land allocations, including the establishment last year of a commission of inquiry to investigate this matter. The commission submitted a report to government in July. In addition, the president has ordered that court cases involving Ogiek claims over forestlands be speeded up.
"This directive is being followed and we are working to see that the cases are concluded in the next few months," said an official in the Ministry of Lands and who requested anonymity.
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