Hunters or hunted? The Ogiek of the Mau Forest

by Joseph Markus

From time immemorial. That is the phrase used by both the Kenyan Government and James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, to describe the length of time during which the Ogiek, as a distinct socio-cultural entity have lived in East Africa. They were among the first peoples to populate East Africa and are believed to have lived in and around the Mau Forest escarpment (popularly known as one of Kenya’s ‘water towers’) since the 18th century.

With the British colonial administration came eviction attempts and extensive logging, with commercial pine tree planting. In the period between 1904 and 1918, the colonial Government tried to evict the community from the forest without success. Once again, in 1941, the colonial Government sought unsuccessfully to evict them but the effort only succeeded in driving the Ogiek further into the natural forest.

The British, while supportive of some indigenous claims, such as the Maasai (pastoralists), for whom they sculpted a system of reserves, considered the Ogiek (hunter-gatherers) as a backward people. In a 1933 Report of the Kenya Land (Carter) Commission, efforts were described “with varying success to induce [the Ogiek] to become useful members of native society.” It was thought, in the 1930s, that they were “more likely to progress and become useful citizens if they live[d] side by side with communities who [had] already advanced some way along the road of orderly progress.”

For that reason alone the Carter Commission declined to recommend the creation of a reserve for, as they were then known, the Dorobo (a derogatory Maasai term, which means both “sinful” and “men without cattle”). Assimilation was the order of the (colonial) day and, sadly, this was, and remains, a not uncommon story.

To this day the Ogiek retain their unique mix of social, economic and cultural traits that, in the eyes of most observers, render them as a distinct community or people. But in response to repeated eviction attempts, as well as the criminalisation of hunting and forest settlement and licensing requirements for the gathering of forest produce, their culture has shifted to some extent. Nevertheless, for this group of hunter-gatherers, their connection to the Mau Forest provides them with what is central to their culture and society: honey.

The Ogiek maintain in simultaneous operation two systems of land and resource tenure. Land, in general terms, is collectively owned and managed. Each clan, or lineage, lives and works on a strip of land in the mountainous forest that will cover each of the five climatic elevations. In addition to maintaining a base camp in the lower and dryer elevations (the soyua at approximately 7,500 feet), the Ogiek will continually move up and down their strip of land, moving via the ridges and through neighbouring lands. Their primary social and economic activities revolve around the most important forest resource of honey. As different stations of the forest flower at different points in the year, the Ogiek move gradually up, collecting honey from the hives that they have hung in the trees.

All Ogiek men are taught at a relatively young age how to make beehives out of particular trees and how to clad those beehives in a bark protection (against both the rain and the honey badger). In contrast to the land, honey is individually managed in order to avoid competition (though the same is not true for game animals). The more ambitious men will maintain up to 200 hives in their koret, the less ambitious, perhaps 50. An Ogiek family will be pleased with an annual collection of 135 kilogrammes of honey and honeycomb.

Complex rituals surround the use, preparation and sale of honey. Ogiek community members will rub their hands with dirt after the indulgence of eating honey. Honey is brewed to form mead or beer, and beer parties are held. It is also used to help preserve meat, forms a core part of the indigenous medicinal knowledge, as well as constituting the basis for an inter-tribal economy.

This lifestyle has been repeatedly challenged throughout the years. The current justification for the blanket eviction notice attached to the Mau Forest—which also houses a number of private settlers, sold land by the corrupt post-colonial Government—is environmental. With the substantial assistance of the United Nations Environment Programme, Kenya is committed to a programme of restoring the Mau Forest. This laudable aim is being pursued in a destructive, hypocritical and antiquated fashion.

First it bears repeating that the local indigenous communities are not the cause of the 25% loss of forest cover that the Mau Forest has suffered over the past 15 years or so. The substantial cause for the deforestation is extensive and under-regulated logging, the concessions for which are granted largely to enormous corporate machines with little or no attachment to the local area. Another is the corruption of the Kenyan authorities. One prime example is the creation of the Nyayo Tea Zones Development Corporation in 1986 and 1988 by Presidential decree. This parastatal organisation, with close links to then President Arap Moi, was allotted 11,000 hectares of pristine forest which it quickly had cleared. However, the land chosen was largely unsuitable for growing tea, and its productive capacity quickly diminished once the trees had gone. Presently, only around 25% of the cleared land is used.

Second the approach perpetuates a strictly classical view of conservation, of a conceptual distinction between humankind and nature, between civilisation and wilderness (ignoring the fact that wilderness areas have often been shaped by millennia of human habitation). According to this logic of scientific conservation, the preservation of nature is best achieved by separating humankind from nature and thus creating wilderness. This was the model that led to the creation of the world’s first national park in Yellowstone, US, involving the expulsion of the resident Shoshone Indians. This approach provided the model for numerous other national parks around the world.

In fact, Kenya recently, and successfully, petitioned UNESCO to inscribe Lake Bogoria in the World Heritage List. This is an area over which another ancient indigenous community, the Endorois, have a claim. Their claim was upheld by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2010. Implementation of the decision is still pending, however it seems that the Kenyan Government, through the World Heritage Convention and under the auspices of conservation, might be seeking to frustrate its effect. The African Commission denounced this move in a November 2011 resolution.

However, more recent shifts in policy have seen this approach changing. The Canadian approach towards indigenous land rights and conservation has struggled to find a mechanism that allows equal respect for both. The formation of the Ivvavik and Torngat Mountains National Parks of Canada are good examples for where the park was conceived in a land claims agreement. These agreements, made between the indigenous communities and the state, recognise the mutual benefits that can follow from preserving the natural environments through a partnership, rather than an exclusionary process. The same can be seen to have taken place in Australia. The Lama Lama Indigenous Management Agreement, signed on 10 July 2008, gives the Lama Lama people joint responsibility for management of the new national park on all levels.

A similar shift can be seen in comparative forestry policy. The prevalent move—especially in South East Asia and South America (possibly as a result of the activism of the Inter-American human rights system towards indigenous land rights)—is towards community forest partnerships and participatory forest management. A 2012 survey, looking at the 2005 Kenyan Forest Act, recognises that this is a theoretical possibility for Kenyan forests, but that there are considerable obstacles. The bureaucracy that accompanies requests for licences and the submission of management plans is something that is likely to prevent forest communities—typically communities with low literacy rates—from getting involved. Additionally, without giving local communities an ownership stake in the forest that they are authorised to manage, there is no incentive to sustainably manage it.

A traditional Ogiek beehive made from a log

The Ogiek are natural conservators: the literal interpretation of their name is “the caretaker of allplants and wild animals.” They depend almost completely on the forest for their food, medicine, shelter and for the preservation of their culture. The hope, then, is that the Kenyan Government can recognise the benefits of allowing this community to continue to live in their ancestral lands and to maintain the forest as they have done for centuries. (The alternative is litigation.) In particular, their beekeeping activities are crucial to the yearly cycle of renewal in the forest. And, as one Ogiek leader has made clear, it is in the interests of the Ogiek to preserve the trees: without the trees, from what do they hang their beehives?

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