Weeks of violent protests and land invasions are intensifying in Kenya, following the expiration of a lease in which the Maasai ethnic group signed away land to British settlers a century ago. As Cathy Majtenyi reports from Nairobi, a Kenyan cabinet minister is among those demanding that the government give back the land to the Maasai and provide compensation.

"We shall continue with this, even if we shall all be killed," says Maasai activist Mary Simat. "But we are saying here that we must fight for our rights, because the land belong[s] to us. It is in black and white in paper that the agreement is over. And we are here today together with our men saying that the land belongs to us."

Ms. Simat told reporters during a recent demonstration in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, that she and her fellow Maasai are demanding that the Kenyan government give back to them prime land in the fertile Rift Valley.

On August 15, 1904, the Maasai signed a treaty with the British colonialists leasing to the British about one million hectares of land in Laikipia district for 100 years. British settlers subsequently moved onto the land and set up large ranches that remain there to this day.

The expiration of the lease in August has been marked by a series of demonstrations and land invasions in which Maasai herdsmen, dressed in their traditional bright red-checkered cloth and clutching spears and clubs, have cut fences surrounding private ranches.

The Maasai are a nomadic people living in western and central Kenya whose wealth and status comes from the number of cattle they own. For them, access to fertile grazing areas is paramount to maintaining their way of life, but they are being squeezed by development into smaller and smaller areas.

Cabinet minister William ole Ntimama, an ethnic Maasai, tells VOA he does not support the land invasions, but he understands why they take place.

"What has really prompted the invasion is the drought and the fact that there is no water outside those fences," he said. "Those poor pastoralists are totally desperate. They do not know what to do when they see dams and pipes of water just next to the land and they see good grass and they are suffering, their cattle are dying of drought, and they themselves are hungry and some of them could be dying."

The public service minister made headlines when, on August 25, he urged the government to pay the Maasai $123 million as compensation for the land that had been leased to the British.

But the Kenyan government argues it is not legally bound to surrender the land to the Maasai, and doing so could destabilize relations among Kenya's more than 40 ethnic groups.

Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua explains why.

"According to our documents, we are looking at a lease of 999 years. We are scrutinizing them," he said. "If they are wrong, we will let you know - maybe they are for 99 years. But regardless of whether they are for 99 years or 10 years, the lease and the agreement is clear: the land comes back to the Republic of Kenya as government land, and then the government chooses. Nobody has a right to occupy that piece of land, otherwise we will have people re-occupying pieces of land everywhere because of different lease expirations."

The government also argues property laws created since Kenya's independence in 1963 override colonial agreements.

The Kenyan government is unlikely to approve a hand-over of the land anytime soon. Ranch owners and farmers in the area say they pump big money into the national and local economies through their eco-tourism activities and tours of rich game areas, farming, and cattle ranching, and the community development projects they operate on their land.

Many of the large-scale ranch owners in the disputed area within Laikipia district are descendants of the British settlers who moved there after the signing of the lease in 1904.

This, along with the invasions of primarily white-owned farms by Maasai protesters, have led some to compare the Kenyan situation to the land reform in Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwe government has seized hundreds of white-owned commercial farms during the past four years and redistributed the land to black Zimbabweans. The seizures were accompanied by widespread invasion of white farms primarily by veterans of the liberation war of the late-1970s.

In contrast, the Kenyan government has categorically condemned land invasions by Maasai protesters, whose demonstrations are peaceful compared to their Zimbabwean counterparts.

Moreover, says the national coordinator of the advocacy group Kenya Land Alliance, Odenda Lumumba, a number of high-profile Kenyan politicians and Kenyans belonging to other ethnic groups either have large-scale ranches in Laikipia, own shares of white-owned operations or practice small-scale farming themselves.

"We are dealing with our own political elite and a bit of their own unfairness," he said. "They are very comfortable if they can hide behind looking as if it is a white farmer issue. So why would you want to go for the white farmers without contextualizing the whole issue about the skewed nature of land distribution in Kenya? To me, it is no longer a white matter - it is white and black."

The Kenya Land Alliance calls on the government to endorse the country's draft constitution, which is being held up by political wrangling. In the draft constitution, there are provisions for communities such as the Maasai to challenge what they say are historical injustices in land distribution.

Meanwhile, the Maasai have vowed to continue their fight. Maasai activists say they will take their case to the Kenyan High Court and the International Court of Justice to get their land back.