Activists are being intimidated amid tensions between the indigenous peoples they represent and conservation policies excluding them from protected forests
NAIROBI, As Wanjiku, a Kenyan land rights activist, stepped out of the minibus and into the night, two other passengers pushed her into a nearby car.
She had made a mistake: not taking seriously death threats over her campaign to stop logging around Mount Kenya, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is an important source of water for the East African nation and home to endangered elephants.
“They told me: ‘We have to be at the mugumo tree at midnight’,” said the 48-year-old human rights lawyer and single mother, who declined to give her real name out of fear.
The mugumo tree is sacred to her Chuka community, which is fighting to win back a 12 km (7.5 miles) stretch of forest that British colonialists made a national reserve in 1934.
Wanjiku led 400 protesters to pray at the ancient tree in a disputed section of forest after they lost a court case to end logging and construction on the land.
The 3,000-plus campaigners that Wanjiku represents – the Atiriri Bururi ma Chuka (ABC) Trust – are among half a dozen forest communities in Kenya seeking the right to manage what they regard as their ancestral lands.
Their battle illustrates global tension between indigenous peoples and conservation policies excluding them from protected forests, with land an explosive political issue in Kenya and disputes often turning violent during election periods.
At midnight, Wanjiku and her captors reached the mugumo tree where a dozen shadowy figures made her vow to abandon her work.
“Whatever they asked me, I responded the way they wanted because all I wanted was my safety,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, her voice cracking.
“Honestly, I wasn’t sure I would survive another day.”
She was bundled back into the car and taken to a second location where she again renounced her campaign.
At dawn, after a 33-hour ordeal without food or water, she was dumped back at the bus stop near her home.
“It eats me up every time I narrate it,” she said tearfully. “I thought I was a small god. Now I know I am not.”
She did not report the incident to the police. More than a year later, she is still receiving counselling.
Close up of the hand of a Kenyan land rights activist, threatened for her work, after an interview on 9 February, 2017. TRF/Katy Migiro
Wanjiku started receiving threats – and offers of bribes – after she began agitating in 2013 for the Chuka community to own and manage the forest, rather than Kenya Forest Service (KFS).
Commercial logging is forbidden in the Mount Kenya reserve but KFS licences millers to harvest exotic species, like cypress, pine and blue gum, to sell as timber and then replant.
But Wanjiku accused the government body of allowing loggers to illegally fell indigenous species – charges it denies.
“We don’t allow harvesting in the natural forests,” Ben Kinyili, KFS’s ecosystem conservator, said in a phone interview.
“It is only on the plantation, which has been established for the purpose of timber.”
KFS data shows that Kenya has been hard hit by illegal logging, settlement and charcoal production in indigenous forests, reducing forest cover to seven percent of land mass.
Campaigners say corruption is rife in Kenya’s forestry sector with tension between communities evicted from the land and others who profit, legally or illegally, from it.
Indigenous people, by law, have to register as an association if they wish to graze, collect herbs or carry out traditional rites in the forest.
“The communities that live next to the forest actually complain that they are not the ones responsible for deforestation,” said Suzanne Chivusia, a commissioner at the state-funded Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.
“Influential people … manipulate the system in their favour.”
The ABC Trust filed a court case in 2014 asking the government to recognise the Chuka’s historic land rights and to bar five licensed milling companies from cutting down 40 acres of forest.
They also sought to stop a 450 km electric fence being built around Mount Kenya by the charity Rhino Ark.
They lost both cases.
Rhino Ark said the fence, which is under construction, aims to reduce conflict between wild animals and local people.
“The fence is a management tool and not a boundary marker,” Adam Mwangi, Rhino Ark’s fence and community manager in Kenya, said in emailed comments.
The charity has won community consent for what will be the world’s longest conservation fence, with some locals working voluntarily to help build it, he said.
KFS then arrested 19 protesters who camped illegally at the mugumo tree for three weeks in 2015, in a case that is ongoing.
“These are misplaced and misguided people who claim their homesteads were inside (the forest). It’s not true,” said Kinyili.
As the Chuka has not been living on the land since the 1930s, it will be harder for them to win recognition than others who have remained in the forest, like the Ogiek, Chivusia said.
Communities have become more vocal about historical land claims since 2010 when a new constitution recognised the right of traditional hunter-gatherer groups to their ancestral lands.
It also set up a commission to investigate historical land injustices dating back to the colonial era when European farmers ousted Kenyans from the White Highlands.
“People have seen a window of opportunity,” said Chivusia.