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January 17, 2019

How many more people will die and forests be destroyed before we recognise the real forest protectors?

As millions of Kenyans face hunger following an unprecedented dry spell, interspersed with excessive flooding, the government has ordered a 90-day ban on logging. Kenya’s forest cover is well below the 10 per cent envisioned in our Constitution and when major rivers are drying up.

The ban is long overdue. Yet, the ban itself will have little impact unless accompanied by an entire overhaul of Kenya’s approach to conservation. We need to recognise that traditional forest dwelling communities have a critical role to play in conserving our country’s forests and water towers.

For far too long, Kenya has been relying on an approach to conservation that is outdated and unjust, leading to countless abuses of rights against indigenous communities. Evidence is now accumulating to show that this ‘fortress’ conservation approach, where communities are kept off their ancestral lands, has led to immense destruction of the way of life and the environment of communities like my own.

In a landmark ruling in May 2017, the African Court of Human and Peoples Rights found that evictions of the Ogiek community of Mau by the government had not helped secure the Mau forests. Instead, the court found that the harm to the environment was caused by encroachments and practices of others.

But while we celebrated this ruling, our Sengwer brothers and sisters continued to face forcible — and often violent— evictions from their lands. Even at Mt Elgon, destruction of the forest has continued under the cover of the Kenya Forest Service-led Plantations Establishment and Livelihood Improvement Scheme, also known as the Shamba system.

While intended to replant trees in deforested areas, at Mt Elgon the system is used to degrade and then clear indigenous forests, create temporary fields and then replant with exotic species. Similarly, the Community Forest Associations set up to ensure community participation have in fact enabled KFS and other elites to exploit the forest for their benefit.

In contrast, when forest communities are able to exercise our rights over our lands, we can — and do —protect our forests. As a case in point, the forests within our Chepkitale community lands are still intact, and KWS has noted that local elephants spend 80 per cent of their time on our lands — most likely because of the availability of food and the safe environment.

More recently, we have taken steps to formalise some of our traditions, including developing bylaws, which spell out how we will conserve our land. We have also set up community scouts who, trained by KWS, patrol our land and, when relevant, arrest charcoal burners and work with KWS to deal with poachers. More recently, we have also been preparing our community land claim under the Community Land Act, which will enable us to have our land rights finally recognised.

On the other hand, the fortress approach to conservation has led to illegal logging and profiteering by individuals within the very agency that was put in place to protect our forests. From Kilifi to Embobut, the alarm has finally been raised about unscrupulous practices that are harming millions of Kenyan. The realisation that indigenous communities are best placed to conserve their forests is not unique to Kenya. Around the world, studies have shown that securing the land rights of forest communities is the best way to ensure conservation.

It is time for Kenya to move away from the idea that only the government can protect our country’s precious resources. Instead, we must use the opportunity presented by the Task Force to Inquire into Forest Resources Management and Logging Activities in Kenya to rethink how we manage our forests. And that means recognising the rights of communities to own and protect their land — not only because our Constitution says we should, and because our Community Land Act makes this possible — but because it will protect everyone’s future.

After all, we have entrusted our wildlife to communities through conservancies — why not our forests?

Peter Kitelo is Strategic Director of Chepkitale Indigenous Peoples’ Development Project and convener of Kenya Forest Indigenous Peoples Network




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