To safeguard the interests of indigenous people and local communities, our rights should be respected.
As the world grapples with the consequences of environmental degradation and the urgent need for sustainable solutions, the voices and actions of young individuals have risen to the forefront of this global movement. Simultaneously, indigenous communities, with their deep connection to the land and traditional knowledge, have long been stewards of the Earth, fighting for their rights and the preservation of their ancestral territories.
In this conversation, we engage with Judy Kipkenda, an inspiring young leader who is at the forefront of this dual struggle, shedding light on the synergies between climate activism and indigenous rights and exploring the transformative potential of this alliance in shaping a more just and sustainable future. Judy is from the Ogiek community of Koibatek in Baringo County, and the founder of Koibatek Ogiek Women and Youth Network, a CBO working towards the rights of the Ogiek community in Baringo – Kenya.
How is the Ogiek community way of life tied to the forest? (Through way of living and tradition)
As a community, the Mau forest is home to us. It ensures sustenance, it is our habitat, our hospital and our school, as we use the forest to teach our kids about our way of life and conservation measures passed down through generations.
You started fighting for your community’s rights at a very young age, how did that start and what drives you to keep fighting?
I started advocating for the rights of my community immediately after I left high school. I grew up in a suburban area as a result of my family, among others being evicted from their land during the 1978-79 time period. My high school completion coincided with the start of community profiling efforts, which focused on coming up with family trees, to help understand who was part of the Ogiek community. These efforts combined with the stories my mother told me about our people and the evictions lit a fire that burns to this day. After completing my university, I went back home to work for the community and have been doing so for the past 13 years.
What keeps me fighting is the hope that one day my community will be able to enjoy the same fundamental rights as every other Kenyan and not be treated as foreigners on our own land.
You talked to me about being present at some of the evictions. Could you take me through what you witnessed?
Between 2012 and 2014, I was working as a communications officer at Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program and during evictions, the community would call the office as they believed the organisation was the only entity that would listen and assist them. The evictions occurred on an area of land in East Mau, known through the Ogiek dialect as Ising’etit. This land is marked by indigenous trees which are planted to mark the passing of an elder. The fully grown trees showed that the land was one passed down through generations but powerful government officials subdivided it amongst themselves and came waving title deeds claiming it was their land.
Our organisation wrote to the Independent Policing Oversight Authority on the matter, attached evidence collected. The chaos stopped after this.In early 2016 more evictions took place where an elder was shot dead and the community was finally driven away from their homes and forced to seek refuge among relatives elsewhere. These evictions adversely affected women and children. Some were forced to live by the road side leading to major health risks
The Ogiek knew nothing of title deeds as they used, and still use traditional methods to mark their boundaries i.e. trees, burial sites, hives among others. Around this time period, the Ogiek people had already filed their case at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and a caveat was placed barring transactions on the Ogiek land.
But this did not stop these powerful officials, who enlisted the help of the police in evicting the Ogiek using tear gas canisters and all manner of violent ways. I witnessed farms being burnt down, harassment of the locals and one of the officials who claimed to be a title wielding owner (a senior lecturer in one of the universities) struck down a woman who’d recently given birth, which led to eruption of violence between the community and the police.
I was arrested a few times as I was covering the evictions for my organisation (OPDP). Every time we tried to explain to the police boss at Njoro police station that the land belonged to the Ogiek and there was a caveat on the land, he would shut us down and say anyone without a title would be forced out. Using veiled threats, they’d tell me to stop fighting and to go tell my people to forget about that “small” piece of land as it does not belong to them.Our organisation wrote to the Independent Policing Oversight Authority on the matter, attached evidence collected. The chaos stopped after this.In early 2016 more evictions took place where an elder was shot dead and the community was finally driven away from their homes and forced to seek refuge among relatives elsewhere. These evictions adversely affected women and children. Some were forced to live by the road side leading to major health risks
.The 2017 African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights judgement, found that the Kenyan government gravely infringed on your rights as a community. Did this judgement coupled with the subsequent 2022 judgement on reparations bring a semblance of justice?
How has the government responded to the two rulings?
As earlier said, they have shown willingness to respect the court rulings and have formed task forces to start the process of giving the Ogiek people back their land and enforcing the reparations. It is a waiting game and we hope this current government will have the goodwill to respect the court rulings and give the Ogiek what is rightfully theirs.
The Ogiek community has been able to live sustainably in the Mau forest for many generations. Would you consider yourselves the caretakers of the forest?
The name Ogiek means the caretaker of all plants and animals. We depend on the forest for everything and believe ourselves to be an important part of the Mau ecosystem. Through beekeeping and our sustainable way of living, we ensure that the forest is not harmed and the forest in turn takes care of us through provision of food and medicine.
This next section of the interview will look into carbon projects (trading) and how they can be brought to the local and indigenous communities. Carbon trading, is a market-based approach that allows entities to buy and sell carbon credits representing the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The relationship between carbon trading and local and indigenous communities is complex. On one hand, carbon trading can provide economic opportunities for these communities as they often possess traditional knowledge and practices that contribute to sustainable land and resource management, which can be valued in carbon markets. However, there are concerns on the impacts of carbon trading on local and indigenous communities and calls for safeguards to protect their land rights, cultural heritage, and ensure equitable benefit sharing.
Many across the globe are coming to the realisation of the importance of local people and indigenous communities in natural resource management and climate mitigation, and certainly in regards to carbon projects. Is your community participating in any carbon programmes?
Very few in our community, maybe the elite, know what carbon programmes entail. Those of the local community on the ground haven’t heard or been presented with anything to do with carbon projects as our lands are still a matter of contention between the government and the community.
There is room for massive civic education on the carbon markets and how they work. Currently, indigenous and local communities on the ground lack knowledge on the workings of the carbon markets. Some communities are convinced that they have been asked to “trade air” which belongs to God and don’t understand what is going on until people unknown to them start fencing their forests immediately an agreement is signed. I also believe that the government should have regulations in place to ensure transparency and integrity for those who wish to conduct carbon trading with communities in the country.
How much awareness do you feel needs to be raised to protect communities from exploitation through the carbon markets?
What is your opinion in terms of benefit sharing for the REDD+ and carbon programmes for indigenous communities?
I believe communities should be considered as one of the main stakeholders in efforts of REDD+ and carbon trading and these communities should be given proper avenues to participate in the carbon markets and remit what they owe or are obligated to the government. Laisamis Member of Parliament, Hon. Joseph Lekuton is tabling a bill in parliament on carbon market benefit sharing, which in my opinion will be very beneficial to the indigenous people and local communities. The bill seeks to cushion communities from exploitation and presents a benefit sharing formula which would be fair to all stakeholders in the carbon markets.
To safeguard the interests of indigenous people and local communities, our rights should be respected. When any and all stakeholders in the land sector wish to partner or have projects on our lands, consultation with us is important. We need to be brought to the decision making table where our heritage and traditions are respected.