Indigenous people in Africa fear loss of forests as pandemic brings new intruders

63-year-old Oscar Muteyi, a member of the Chepkitale Ogiek Community in Mount Elgon, located in Kenya —in East Africa— remembers too well the evening when he met a group of intruders cutting down trees.

Muteyi comes from the indigenous Ogiek community in Kenya, who live in forests and are majorly hunters and gatherers.

Being a father of seven children, he had left his house for his normal duties of hunting and gathering to provide for his family. Then, he saw a group of 10 intruders divide themselves into groups to cut down trees.

“One tree had already fallen and some of them were busy cutting its branches, while others had tied ropes on the next one preparing to cut it with a power saw. I had to call the village elder for assistance,” he said.

The elder would later call community scouts, who have been spearheading the protection of Mt  Elgon forest from loggers, to arrest the trespassers. At this point, the intruders were targeting one of the oldest trees in the forest.

Mt Elgon forest is one of the five water towers of Kenya, which means it’s the birthplace of a group of rivers that feed into three important lakes in the region: Lake Victoria, Turkana and Kioga in Uganda.

Mt Elgon Forest is a forest ecosystem that covers an area of about 49,000 ha. It is divided by streams and valleys and dotted with a variety of tree species including cypress and bamboo. Despite its importance to thousands of people in Kenya and Uganda, this forest has been threatened with deforestation and degradation.

According to Muteyi, this is one of the many cases of illegal logging, an activity that has been on the rise since the Coronavirus pandemic was first reported in Kenya in March 2020.

Due to the pandemic, many businesses of the surrounding community were affected, forcing people to find quick ways of getting money, said Peter Kitelo, the Executive Director of Chepkitale Indigenous People Development Project, a Community Based Organization in Mount Elgon that also fights for the rights of the Ogiek.

“The neighbouring communities since then have invaded our forests to cut trees for charcoal burning,’’ he said. The main community surrounding the forest is the Sabaot and the Bukusu, which is mainly dedicated to agriculture as their main economic activity. 

He explained that, as people feared a possible impact to their health and economic conditions from Covid-19, they were now extracting more resources from the forest such as charcoal to prepare financially for those risks.

The Covid-19 pandemic led to a surge in deforestation in other African countries as well. In the Congo basin, for example, a 2021 study found illegal logging increased during the pandemic.

At a global level, deforestation from extractive activities is a big threat to indigenous people’s human rights, as they often depend on forests for food, water and shelter, according to the organization Human Rights Watch.

Deforestation also plays a key role for climate change, as emissions generated from tree cutting activities account for around 24% of global emissions, according to the UN’s main climate science report.

A rush for charcoal

In Kenya,  there is currently a rise in demand for charcoal, since the LPG gas prices spiked in the course of the year. This made it difficult for households to afford the expensive source of fuel for cooking, opting for charcoal instead.

Kitelo says indigenous trees that have been growing in the forest for years are now at risk of being extinct. 

This is also affecting the community’s vital role of conservation. Cutting down the trees means that the locals lose resources, and the mountain is at risk of filtering less water, a situation that could lead to dried rivers and shrinking lakes, Kitelo said.

But this is aside from the fact that the more than 6000 Ogiek people of Chepkitale have already started experiencing climate change effects, with unpredictable rain patterns affecting their beekeeping activities, added Kitelo.

“With the unpredictable and reduced rains, trees can no longer flower on time, this affects bees, pollination and their production of honey,” he said.  

He retaliated that since the pandemic started, his organization has not taken any data on the Covid-19 effects in their lives.

Part of the reasons, he explained are that they had less time holding regular workshops or meeting with the community which are usually funded by other conservation Non Governmental Organizations (NGO).

Members of the Ogiek Community leave their homes in Mauche,  Njoro near the Mau Forest, Kenya in 2020 when chaos erupted over a land tussle. Other than being displaced during the Covid-19 pandemic, neighbouring communities have invaded the forests that are a habitat for indigenous communities,  posing a risk to the environment. 

Impacts to indigenous people

Other than affecting the forest which is their natural habitat, the Ogiek community in other parts of Kenya such as 35,000 others found in Mau forest in the Rift Valley have also faced eviction during the pandemic. 

The forest is also a major water catchment area. The Kenyan government is fighting encroachment into water catchment areas, which has in turn affected the members of the Ogiek Community who have been living in the forests for decades. The state claims it is weeding out encroachers out of the Mau forest, which is now a government protected area.

The Covid-19 pandemic also led to loss of jobs among indigenous families, which threatened their capacity to maintain households.

“We have no data to show the extent of the effects, but from our own experiences and complaints from the community, each one of them has fallen victim to the pandemic’s effect,” Kitelo said.

Mary Chepkemei, 63 is still feeling the effects of being evicted from her ancestral home in Marioshoni, in Mau Forest where she was born. She is among the Ogiek community and other non-Ogiek members who are now, according to the government, said to be encroachers of the Mau forest that is trying to be protected.

She pleads with the government to give them dignity and return their land, which will help them conserve their fast-degenerating culture.

The Ogiek’s religious beliefs, livelihoods, traditional practices and language are among those that are at risk of being lost due to the evictions. Already, some of their lifestyles have changed. The communities that traditionally used to wear skins and hunt for their food are now adapting to modern ways, as they live away from their original homes. 

According to Kitelo, if the forest is left for the government to manage, there will be even more cases of deforestation and indegenous trees will also be lost as a result of logging. “We have traditionally been preserving the forests and not cutting trees,” he said.

Protection from loggers

To protect their forest from encroachers and loggers, the Ogiek community has deployed scouts, who patrol the forest to get rid of tree fellers causing deforestation.

The scouts volunteers are locals who are also members of the community. They are trained by the Chepkitale Indigenous People Development Project and are not armed. Every week, the scouts who are unarmed make patrols in the forests in search of any illegal activities. They then reach out to local government security officials in case they find someone invading the forest.

Former Rift Valley Regional Coordinator George Natembeya, has occasionally said that the state would not be intimidated or derailed in having illegal encroachers kicked out of Mau forest.

But the Ogiek people have insisted that the government should let them back to the forest once they are done with evicting the encroachers.

He added that another reason for the evictions of indigenous people was to protect the forests from being invaded by non-Ogiek members, who practice logging. 

The government has evicted at least 700 Ogiek families, some who have been accommodated by communities living nearby, such as the Nandi, Kipsigis, Maasai and Kikuyu in Narok and Nakuru Counties in Kenya. Others still live in camps on the outskirts of the Mau.

He argued in favor of relocating indigenous people away from forests, which are an important resource to the country, as they act as water catchment areas.

But Kitelo thinks otherwise, relocating them from their original home means paving way for loggers to get into the forest and cut down more trees for timber and charcoal. 

Science also suggests that indigenous people are (by far) better forest protectors than government officials. A UN report shows that, in Latin America, deforestation rates were 50% lower in indigenous territories than in empty forests.

Muteyi may have headed back to his house after his encounter, but he now fears for the future of one place that he has always called home. 

Even though the loggers may have escaped,Muteyi said he hopes that  many others that are still successfully cutting down the trees will be found. His other hope is that more people will volunteer to be forest scouts to protect their heritage.