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Kenya's Ogiek Face Eviction From Forest Homeland - 2002-03-28

The rights group Survival International is charging that a traditional hunter-gatherer community in Kenya is facing destitution because of government plans to cut down their forest home.

The Mau forest has been home to Kenya's Ogiek people since before recorded history. Dressing in animal skins and flamboyant feathered headdresses, the Ogiek live a simple existence - hunting forest animals, eating wild fruits, and cultivating honey.

But the London-based rights group Survival International says all that is about to change because the Kenyan government intends to cut down more than 60,000 hectares of the Mau forest, about 200 kilometers northwest of the capital, Nairobi.

The forest's 20,000 Ogiek inhabitants will be forcibly evicted from their ancestral land.

Virginia Luling of the Survival International group, which campaigns for the rights of indigenous peoples, says the Ogiek have no other means of supporting themselves.

"They will be turned out of their land. They will lose their culture," she said. "And they'll just be part of the general dispossessed population. Most of them don't have any skills. It'll be largely a question of finding some bit of land to cultivate or else they'll just drift to the slums."

Ms. Luling says the Ogiek will run into all sorts of social problems if they are suddenly stripped of their traditional identity and way of life.

"People should be in control of their own lives and be able to adapt their culture and not have it done to them," she said. "It's very destructive and leads to all sorts of social breakdown if people are forced into a way of life which they don't want and which they haven't chosen for themselves."

The Kenyan government says it is cutting down the forest to give the land to landless squatters. But Ms. Luling says it makes no sense to settle one group of poor people by dispossessing another.

Some people also question the Kenyan government's statements. Local media says they have documents that show some of the land has already been allocated to political heavyweights, including Environment Minister Joseph Kamotho and the wife of Kenya's first president, Mama Ngina Kenyatta.