Forest people may lose home in Kenyan plan

 MARASHONI, Kenya — With the stroke of a pen, the last of Kenya’s honey hunters may soon be homeless.

Since time immemorial, the Ogiek have been Kenya’s traditional forest dwellers. They have stalked antelope with homemade bows, made medicine from leaves and trapped bees to produce honey. They have struggled to survive the press of modernity, and many times they have been persecuted, driven from their forests and belittled as “dorobo,” a word meaning roughly people with no cattle. Somehow, they have always managed to survive.

Now, though, the little-known Ogiek, among East Africa’s last bona fide hunters and gatherers, face their gravest test yet. The Kenyan government is getting ready to evict tens of thousands of settlers, illegal or not, from the Mau Forest, the Ogiek’s ancestral home and a critical water source for this entire country. The question: Will the few thousand remaining Ogiek be given a reprieve or told to leave?

“Tell Obama and his men to help us,” pleaded Daniel M. Kobei, an Ogiek leader, who still seems almost stunned that the Ogiek may have to leave a forest they have battled for decades to conserve. “It’s not that we’re special, but this forest is our home.”

No doubt the Mau Forest is crucial. It is — or more accurately, used to be — a thick, staggeringly beautiful forest in western Kenya, capturing the rains and the mist and, in turn, feeding more than a dozen lakes and rivers across the region, even contributing to the flow of the Nile.

But in the past 15 years, because of ill-planned settlement schemes (the government essentially handed out chunks of forest to cronies), 25 percent of the trees have been wiped out. Much of the forest is now simply meadow. The Ogiek say there are fewer antelope and bees. They constantly use the Kiswahili word “haribika,” which means spoiled. Scientists say the environmental destruction has led to flash floods, micro-climate change, soil erosion and dried-up lakes.

The results were painfully obvious this summer when East Africa was hit by one of the worst droughts in years. In Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, the water taps went dry for weeks. And because Kenya gets a lot of electricity from hydropower, the water shortage meant blackouts, which many Kenyans believe contributed to the recent spike in crime and unemployment.

Suddenly, the Kenyan government seemed to spring into action, commissioning hefty environmental reports and insisting on ejecting all settlers from the Mau Forest so that the government could plant millions of trees and get the country’s water sources churning again. But the sudden environmental altruism has bred suspicion as well. Many Ogiek wonder if Kenyan politicians, notorious as among the world’s most corrupt, are driven by another kind of green.

“The government wants that forest for economic reasons, not conservation reasons,” said Towett Kimaiyo, an Ogiek leader. “The only people who are going to benefit are the sawmillers.”

Almost as if to prove his point, beyond the bird chirps and cow bells tinkling across the smooth green hills was a different noise, a deeper, steadier noise, like a growl: bulldozers, many of them. Upon closer inspection, it was clear that timber companies are continuing to chew up large tracts of the Mau, knocking down giant trees and turning them into doors and plywood for export.

“I don’t want to talk about that,” said Julius Kavita, this area’s district commissioner, when asked what was going on.

Kavita said it was “complicated” and left it at that. But Kenyan environmental groups contend that powerful politicians control the timber companies, just as they control the dairies, the tea farms and other engines of Kenya’s economy.

To the Ogiek, all this is sadly familiar. Though they are among the oldest communities in East Africa, many were marched off their land by British colonists in the 1930s and herded into “native reserves” where countless Ogiek died from diseases they had no natural resistance to, like malaria. The British felled their forests and planted pine trees, good for commercial logging, though in the Ogiek’s eyes, for little else.

The persecution continued after Kenya’s independence in 1963, with the Kenyan police burning down Ogiek huts to drive the people out of the woods. In the 1990s, the government began handing out thousands of acres in the Mau Forest to political friends, which squeezed the Ogiek even further. The Ogiek sued in Kenyan courts, and the Ford Foundation helped pay their legal bills, but their forest continued to melt away.

Kavita said the Ogiek, compared with the outside settlers who have chopped down trees to make cornfields, were “so kind to the forest.” But he was noncommittal on whether the Ogiek would get a special exemption from the planned evictions.

Nowadays, many of the same people who used to derisively refer to Ogiek as dorobo are claiming to be Ogiek themselves, “Ogiek originals,” in the hope they might get help, too.

This could be a problem because the Ogiek are not great record keepers. Recent reports indicate that eight of 10 Ogiek cannot read. Their total population is estimated at 5,000 to 20,000, many of them balancing their traditions with the trappings of modern life. It is not uncommon to see an Ogiek man with a quiver of eagle feather arrows in one fist and a cell phone in the other.

“I have one question,” said an Ogiek boy in a village near Marashoni. “Will the government evict us or not?”

Another young man tramped off into the woods to check a honey trap at the top of a tall tree. He was carrying a smoking coconut — “to make the bees sleep,” he explained — and wearing an antelope-skin pouch and a pair of muddy sneakers. The last thing he did before shimmying up the bark and disappearing into the leaves was to kick off his shoes, a symbol of the world he was leaving behind, however fleetingly.

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