MASAITA, Kenya—Twenty years ago, when Rael Chemutai and her husband heard about the fertile land that was for sale near the Mau Forest, about 200 kilometers (124 miles) west of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, they decided to sell their belongings and set out on a journey to finally settle on the productive land.
The 90-year-old mother of 10 is now living with her eight grandchildren in a makeshift structure made of nylon papers and old corrugated iron sheets near the Mau Forest in Masaita village, a few kilometers away from her original home in the village of Ororwet, where they first settled after the move.
Chemutai’s home in Ororwet was among the ones torched by government officials last July as part of the latest drive to clear the forest of settlers. According to Chemutai, Forest Service officials set her family’s home on fire one morning before they woke up, at about 6 a.m.
“They gave us a warning the previous day at around 4 p.m. and we didn’t think they were going to forcefully evict us this way,” recounted Chemutai, a member of the Kipsigis tribe.
The evictions are part of a forest conservation initiative by the Ministry of Environment, which wants to free up the land that they say villagers are encroaching on. The push to remove the residents also has been linked with ethnic clashes, with the current residents, the Kipsigis tribe, claiming the Maasai community are using political power and violence to free the land so it can be used as pasture for their cattle.
In the past few days, there have been fierce ethnic clashes between the Maasai and Kipsigis that have left five people dead and 33 others injured.
“We have had very rough times in all the 20 years that we have lived in this place. We have been evicted several times, only being taken back by politicians when it is nearing elections, because they want to look good for the ballot,” Chemutai said.
The Mau complex is an area that starts at about 175 kilometers west of Nairobi and is the largest water catchment area for Kenya, lying on about 400,000 hectares (almost 988,500 acres) of land. It spreads to several counties including Kericho, Bomet, Narok, and Nakuru.
Evictions from the Mau forest date back to colonial periods, when the British colonial government tried to evict the indigenous Ogiek tribe that lived there. But because there wasn’t a proper structure of government, it was hard to make the evictions stick since the Ogiek just moved to new places within the forest and set up their lives again.
There have been repeated attempts at evictions since then as well with each of the consecutive five governments. The administration of Daniel Arap Moi, who became president in 1978, is accused of attempting to evacuate existing residents to settle members of Kipsigis, part of his Kalenjin ethnic group, in the forest.
The most impactful mass evictions, however, were carried out by the administration of former President Mwai Kibaki, who was in office until 2013.
The Tanzania-based African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights issued a ruling in May last year that deemed it illegal to evict the Ogiek from any forest, since they are known for having their homes there and for not harming the forests. The Ogiek don’t practice farming but depend on gathering fruits and honey for a living.
However, other tribes, like the Kipsigis, coming into the forest has led to major destruction as they clear the land for charcoal and for agricultural production. The maize fields that stretch through the hills, and valleys that used to be covered by thick forest, are a testament to the destruction.
On the other hand, the evictions have sparked clashes between the Maasai community—a majority tribe in Narok County—who believe that the members of the Kipsigis tribe that live in the forest should be removed.
Politicians have been said to fuel the clashes with their remarks, both in public forums and on social media. Narok County Senator Ledama Olekina, part of the Maasai community, has been criticized for remarks about the evictions. The clashes first started when a herder was killed by one community and his livestock taken away.
Juliana Bor, a resident of Ororwet village in the Mau Complex, also was evicted. But, as she recounts, things have gotten worse since Olekina’s public remarks.
“He promised to come after us with the Maasai warriors, and sure they did. A few days ago, almost 200 Maasai warriors armed with nuts, arrows, and spears came and started attacking us. One of them aimed at me in my house but missed, his huge nut cut through the corrugated iron sheet wall into the structure I live in,” Bor said.
The Maasai and Kipsigis communities are known to use metal nuts from tractors and other heavy machinery as a projectile during their fighting, with the help of a piece of wood, normally about a foot long.
Repeated efforts to reach Olekina through phone calls to his office, visits to his office, and contacting him on social media for comments were unsuccessful.
Last year, several human-rights defenders came together to file a paper in protest of the human-rights violations committed by the Kenyan government in evicting people from the forests.
It said in part, “The actions of the Government of Kenya in forcibly evicting tens of thousands of people from forests violates a range of human rights, which are contained in international instruments to which Kenya is a State Party.”
Kenyan lawyer Leonard Sigey Bett has filed a petition with the International Criminal Court at The Hague in the Netherlands challenging the evictions.
“If you look at Article Seven of the Rome Statute, it talks about forceful evictions of members of one ethnic community as being wrong and this is exactly what we see in the Maasai Mau. I was required to prove that there is no mechanism or minimal intervention by the local government to stop the evictions,” Bett said.
“The chief prosecutor wrote back to me acknowledging my letter and said that they will act soon [within 30 days] to determine their jurisdiction on the matter and carry on with the case.”
Environmental conservation groups generally support the eviction of people from the forest, but only if the exercise is done amicably and humanely.
“The efforts that are ongoing to save the Mau and other water catchment areas is a good step in the right direction if it’s done in a proper manner,” said Psamson Nzioki, program officer at the Climate Governance Integrity Program at Transparency International–Kenya.
The area chief, Michael Lemein, who represents the government, said that residents were given enough notice about the evictions—up to a year before they were enforced.
He also disputed media reports that 15 local schools were shut down as part of the evictions.
Narok County Police Commissioner George Natembeya rejects the many claims of police brutality in enforcing the evictions.
“If someone has been beaten, he should report to us. We have also launched investigations to claims of politicians fueling clashes and banned all political meetings in the area,” he said.
With the second phase of evictions set to begin at any time, the residents who are now displaced don’t know what to do next. Richard Ngeno, a resident who heads the evictees from Nkoben village, said he is left with nothing.
“I have decided that I will go back to my village and wait for either the warriors or the police officers to kill me. I have lost everything I owned, even my land that I had sold my cattle in order to buy,” Ngeno said.