MAU FOREST EVICTIONS

No easy solutions for land injustices

Problem has its roots in the colonial era.

In Summary
  • What we have here is a clash of definitions as to what it means to “own” a piece of land in Kenya.
  • Those now being called squatters have all along assumed that they owned these farms in the Mau.

I once read an essay in an old British magazine, written by a woman who lived in Kenya in the early 1950s or thereabouts. This woman belonged to what we would now call the “settler” class of white Kenyans who were encouraged to take up land – and supported in developing large-scale plantation farms – in what was then the ‘Kenya Colony’.

In this essay, she dismissed the idea that the white settlers had “grabbed” land from the indigenous communities. For her, there had been no massive dispossession accompanying the setting up of these “settler farms”. She wrote that virtually all the land that had been appropriated for the settler-owned farms, had previously been empty savannah grasslands with nothing but wild animals.

And I was so stunned by this claim, that I then took some trouble to look into the matter. I found that the writer was mostly right – but also completely wrong. It all depended on what your definition of land ownership was.

 

By way of background, let me turn to the generalisations I once used when giving a lecture – shortly after the epic post-election violence of 2008 – on the complexities, ambiguities and contradictions inherent in the matter of land ownership in Kenya.

My perspective was that this post-election-violence was but an escalation of prevailing disputes over who really had rightful ownership over what land; a controversy with its roots in the colonial era.

Historically, all indigenous Kenyan tribes fell into two broad categories: there were the agrarian or farming communities; and then there were the nomadic pastoral or cattle-herding communities. And each of these had their distinctive traditional cultures through which they defined land ownership.

What I argued was that historically, all indigenous Kenyan tribes fell into two broad categories: there were the agrarian or farming communities; and then there were the nomadic pastoral or cattle-herding communities. And each of these had their distinctive traditional cultures through which they defined land ownership.

As far as the pastoralists were concerned, any land on which they passed as they grazed their large herds of cattle was their communal property. And these nomadic communities were inclined to wander over rangelands that were many kilometers in both width and length – and included remote swamplands which they only visited every decade or so when the rains failed.

Then there were the farming communities: in pre-colonial Kenya, the traditional way for a farmer to extend his land holdings was to go out into the forest or the savannah grasslands and carve out a new farm by clearing the trees and bushes.

As most farming communities stay in the same place for long periods, there was rarely much dispute as to who owned what parcel of land: any acreage that a farmer ploughed for a few seasons was his personal asset by right. But these farms involved much smaller parcels of land, given the prehistoric technologies our agrarian ancestors used. It’s the pastoralists who laid claim to the wide-open spaces.

So a foreigner who came to Kenya in the early 1900s, at about the period when the ‘Kenya Colony’ had first been established, might well indeed have seen large tracts of empty grasslands, and so assumed that nobody owned this land. But the members of the Maasai, the Samburu and other nomadic communities would have had a different opinion on the subject. And to this day, their descendants speak with great bitterness of this dispossession.

 

I mention all this because I am as troubled as any other Kenyan at the sight of all those helpless people being moved out of the Mau Forest complex in the ongoing evictions of “squatters” from that area. I am pretty sure that none of these small-scale farmers believe that there is justice in these evictions. In their eyes, no environmental logic could ever justify this forced departure from the only homes they know; this demolishing of their schools and churches.

What we have here too is a clash of definitions as to what it means to “own” a piece of land in Kenya. Those now being called squatters have all along assumed that they owned these farms in the Mau. Many had title deeds. Now they are being told that, actually, they don’t own those farms. That they are landless squatters. And that this land must revert to primaeval forest.

I have a feeling we have not heard the last word on this subject.