THE CARETAKERS OF ALL
Ogiek Peoples Development Program (Kenya)
In order to prevent conflict, the Ogiek of Kenya's Mau Forest used to divide their lands into territories. Each family had its own part of the forest, with its own name. Here they could collect wild fruits and nuts, hunt, and harvest honey without overstressing these resources or taking more than their share. The only boundaries were the forest's rivers, valleys and hills, but they were respected for the good of the entire ecosystem, of which the Ogiek were an important part.
“The Ogiek are the forest, and the forest is the Ogiek people,“ says Peter Kiplangat Cheruiyot, Program Officer at the Ogiek Peoples' Development Program (OPDP), a non-profit organization founded by members of the Ogiek community. OPDP is at the forefront of a battle facing the 20,000 Ogiek living in Kenya—a battle to stay in the Mau Forest and to preserve their way of life.
In 2005, the Kenyan government announced that everyone living in the forest “illegally“ must leave. It was not the first eviction the Ogiek had faced—outsiders have been driving them out of the forest for almost a century to make way for tea plantations and logging operations. But since 1977 the government has claimed that the evictions are necessary to preserve the forest. During the past few decades, destruction of the Mau Forest has accelerated so rapidly that only three quarters of its vegetation remains intact. As a result, the government has begun purging the forest of human occupants, including those who lived there long before the destruction began.
The Ogiek were left with nowhere else to go and no access to sanitation or clean water. They were harassed by the police, and their homes, schools and crops were burned so that they could not return. Armed settlers who lay claim to the forest attacked them when they tried to defend themselves, and Ogiek activists have been targeted with special brutality.
Daniel Kobei, executive director of OPDP, points out that the other groups affected by the evictions are part of the larger ethnic majority, which draws more political support in Kenya's ethnically divided government. “They are politically represented, while the Ogiek do not have political representation,“ he says. “[Our] marginalization is overwhelming in all aspects of life.“
But there is some hope that things are changing. In 2010, following the unrest that resulted from the 2007 presidential election, Kenya ratified a new constitution that ensures rights for minorities and Indigenous peoples, including a recognition of the rights of hunter-gatherer societies to occupy traditionally held lands.
“It's a new dawn to the minorities,“ says Kobei. The new constitution may hold the key to the future of the Ogiek people.
In partnership with First Peoples Worldwide, OPDP has organized a series of workshops and public meetings to educate community members about their constitutional rights, as well as to make their voices heard on the national stage.
In 2011, OPDP invited some of Kenya's top constitutional lawyers to lead a workshop in Nairobi on how the new constitution will affect minorities. OPDP used a Keepers of the Earth grant from First Peoples Worldwide to cover transportation and lodging costs for Ogiek leaders to travel to Nairobi, as well as other organizational costs. The workshop attracted more than 50 participants, including members of the Ogiek as well as other Indigenous groups. OPDP gathered members of a government task force on reorganizing Kenya's government to engage with the Ogiek delegation, and even persuaded a member of Kenya's parliament to attend the workshop.
The project not only helped educate the Ogiek and other groups about their rights, it also helped educate Kenya about the Ogiek. National media coverage of the main workshop, cultivated by OPDP, brought Ogiek issues to the attention of millions of people all over the country. Kenya's politicians habitually ignore small, marginalized groups in order to focus on winning the votes of the majority, but as the plight of the Ogiek becomes more visible, voters throughout Kenya may side with them. The national attention indicates that this change is already happening—the struggle of the Ogiek to stay on their land represents the deepest spirit of Kenya's new constitution, and their voices are beginning to resonate far beyond the Mau Forest.
First Peoples Worldwide continues to support OPDP's efforts to empower the Ogiek community, including follow-up meetings designed to bring the workshop's insights to those who were unable to attend. In the coming year, a new grant will help the organization focus on preparing the Ogiek for elections slated for early 2013. Kobei hopes that, in addition to learning about the potential consequences of their votes, his fellow Ogiek will be inspired to run for office so that they can represent their community in Kenya's new government.
Perhaps the most important result of the workshop and follow-up meetings was that Ogiek elders gained recognition in their communities through their leadership, creating a sense of unity amidst the shattering hardships the Ogiek have endured.
“The projects led to the realization of solidarity to resist eviction,“ says Kobei. “Due to the empower[ment of] community members, the act of police harassment and arrest was brought to an end.“
On a recent field visit to Tinet in the northern part of Mau Forest, Kobei spoke with an Ogiek man named Kebenei Julius. “Our lives have serious[ly] changed since the activities empowered our link with the government for dialogue and fighting for our rights,“ he said. “The Ogiek are now recognized [more] than before, including on the decision-making at the district level.“
First Peoples Worldwide supports the ongoing efforts of OPDP and the Ogiek community, and is committed to the process of building capacity among Kenya's Indigenous leaders. If the Ogiek can succeed in protecting their rights, other Indigenous groups in the region may follow. With a global network of such communities standing in solidarity, it will be increasingly difficult to deny Indigenous Peoples their rights.
Like many of our communities, the Ogiek are not only fighting for themselves, but for their homeland and all of its living things. Even the name of the Ogiek means “caretaker of all.“ They are not a threat to the Mau Forest, but if they continue to defend their right to remain there, they may be able to save it from destruction.