Forest People May Lose Home in Kenyan Plan

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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, the golden elixir of the woods. 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 gearing up 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 is: Will the few thousand remaining Ogiek be given a reprieve or given the boot?

“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.”...

... 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...

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