Indigenous Land Struggle in Kenya's Mau Forest

By: Elea Ziegelbaum, Uplift 2018 Organizer

A long fought for victory in the struggle for indigenous land rights in Eastern Africa has been underway over the course of the past few weeks in Southern Kenya. The Maasai Mau Forest, East Africa’s largest and most important watershed and a site of incredible cultural and ecological significance, is finally being liberated from the thousands of settlers who have been occupying and desecrating it under the orders of the current neocolonial government since the onset of the 1950’s. This order was initiated by Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, which also signals a possible change in the power dynamic of the country.

This move comes after more than twenty years of government deliberations over the fate of this forest as a result of strong calls from several indigenous nations as well as global conservation entities to protect and conserve the forest. The Maasai, an indigenous pastoral community whose ancestral ties to this land draws back hundreds of years, have been on the frontlines of the resistance against the encroachment and destruction of Mau Forest which they were first forcibly removed from during the onset of British occupation in the region.

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This is why when the neocolonial government announced that they would begin the process of removing these settlers from Mau Forest, the Maasai, and all others involved in this struggle, were both surprised and enlivened.

Shared with the Ogiek tribe, an indigenous group who inhabit the interior of the forest, Mau was originally the site that the pastoral Maasai would use during droughts to graze cattle and obtain water. It was the source of many medicinal plants and herbs used by the community and was also revered as one of the most sacred sites in Maasailand, with many of the community’s rituals and ceremonies taking place within the forest.

Furthermore, the Mau Forest is arguably the most important site of water catchment in the entire East African region, being the source of dozens of different rivers which sustain multitudes of communities and more-than-human life downstream. Rivers like the Mara flow into Lake Victoria, which is also the headwaters of the Nile River, flowing and sustaining life in much of Northeastern Africa.

Recently, the quality and quantity of these bodies of water has been seriously depleted as a result of the deforestation of the Mau Forest for obtainment of charcoal, timber and agricultural and settlement purposes. As Austin Parsaloi, a young Maasai community activist explains,

“Without rain, then there is no way you can have everything. Wild animals and people would not survive without rain. Rain, we believe it is from the forest and water is also near the forest. And when you have grass you have water, then your animals and your people are OK. So the Mau Forest is an important forest to Maasai livelihood and survival because it provides water to all rivers downstream. I’m imagining a situation whereby if there was no water here in the downstream, what will happen to people? All people will die, and all wild animals will die.”

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The Maasai community was first forcibly displaced from large swaths of the forest under British colonialism. British settlers identified the Mau Forest as some of the most fertile lands in East Africa and violently and brutally forced their way into the forest to establish their agricultural export-oriented economy.

In the 1950’s, the forest was set aside by the colonial government as community trust land. However, during Kenya’s independence in 1963, instead of restoring Mau back to these indigenous communities, members of the neocolonial government perversely used this Maasai trust land as a site to create political favor with different ethnic groups. This was done by handing out large parcels of forest to different agricultural interests and encouraging illegal settlement in the forest.

This has all culminated into one of the world’s most serious ecological crises, and the Kenyan government has largely ignored the persistent demands from the Maasai community to rid the forest of these illegal squatters. When President Uhuru Kenyatta announced at the beginning of July that he would begin the process of clearing the forest, the Maasai community was flooded with elation at this rare instance of government cooperation with their demands. What remains is for the government to fully follow through on this move which is critical for Maasai cultural and physical survival. Donkol Ole Keiwa, a Maasai elder describes his perception of this situation:  

“I just wish that he does not relent on this and the government should continue to implement this policy and not take sides with illegal squatters at the expense of conservation and the rights of this community, who are the original owners of this forest, and they decide that they should set this forest aside for the benefit of the community and the future generations and the whole country or countries that depend on this forest for their waters.”

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Amid the excitement this historic move brings to the community, many hope that this is just the beginning of a long-overdue process of returning land initially stolen over a century ago under the first wave of colonization. While this is merely a concession and among the first steps towards the liberation of the Maasai community from the grips of the legacy of colonialism, the community celebrates this achievement today.

“I am seeing it [is] going to be in a way that it has never been and I am happy for that, for survival of my people and my community,” Parsaloi tells me. “Because if there is no forest there is no way these people can do to survive, without water and without rain.”

This article was written in July 2018 and published at a later date. Therefore, much has shifted in Maasailand that this article does not account for.