African court’s landmark ruling gives hope to rural people across the continent


Ogiek leaders wait to hear the African Court’s ruling. Dan

The still new African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights has issued a landmark judgement for marginalised communities across
Africa. It 
ruled that the Kenyan government violated the rights of the Mau Ogiek
people by evicting them from their ancestral land in the 
Mau Forest complex.

Before taking their case to the African court, the Mau
Ogiek had waged a long battle in a national court against routine evictions
which the government has justified 
on the grounds of concerns about the environment.

The court for human and people’s rights rejected these
claims. It concluded that eviction from their ancestral forest territories
violated the 
African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the founding continental law to which all members of the African Union
are party.

The court was established by African
states in 2006 to ensure the protection of human and peoples’ rights in Africa.
It has so far finalised 32 cases. Its work compliments that of the 
African Commission on Human and
Peoples Rights
– which acted on behalf of the Ogiek. The Ogiek
case is the 
first time the court
has ruled on an indigenous peoples’ rights case or in a case with mass human
rights violations indicated.

This is why the decision matters a great deal. Not only for Africans who define themselves as
indigenous people but for all rural dwellers who own land on the basis of 
customary law. Their numbers are expected to rise to around one billion by 2050.
Around two-thirds of their lands 
are not farms but forests and range lands critical to their livelihoods.

Unfortunately, while the ruling is legally binding,
the court will have to work hard to ensure compliance. The Kenyan Government
yet to implement a 2009 quasi-judicial ruling by the African Commission on a
similar issue. No doubt this non-compliance encouraged the commission to
forward the case to the African Court.

Linking land rights and conservation

The court made some key observations in its ruling. These included:

The profound attachment that Ogiek hunter-gatherers
have to their environment and the way in which this shapes every aspect of
their society, irrespective of modernising lifestyles.

Their long history of subjugation and marginalisation,
including denial of land rights that have been granted to stronger tribes. The
first major forcible evictions of the Mau Ogiek 
date back to the 1910s under the British colonial government.

The court also concluded that evicting the Ogiek is

[necessary] nor proportionate to achieve the purported [government]
justification of preserving the natural ecosystem of the Mau Forest.

On the contrary, the court found evidence, that the
Kenyan government was responsible for much of the environmental destruction.
This included taking land for private settlement (including for politically
powerful elites 
such as former President Moi) and losses through “ill-advised logging concessions”.

A man from the Ogiek community harvests honey.

The court recognised that the intact
forest is infinitely more valuable to forest people than a cleared forest. The
Ogiek’s founding traditional beekeeping culture requires complex natural
forests to survive, and virtually every ritual and organisational norm is borne
from the forest’s existence. “We lose the forest, we lose our society” is a
routine refrain among Kenya’s modern forest peoples.

The court’s recognition of this is
crucial. The government of Kenya pinned its defence on firstly that Ogiek were
no longer solely dependent on hunting and gathering, and secondly that the need
to evict them was in the public interest of saving natural forests.

The judges found little to suggest the
public interest would be served by this strategy.

Reaping the ruling’s rewards

Who will benefit
from this judgement? The answer is: a wide-range of people, as well as policies
and institutions.

The first is the court itself. It has
demonstrated its autonomy in a continent where judicial independence remains
shaky in many states.

Secondly, all indigenous forest peoples
in Kenya will find it easier to advance their own claims for recognition as owners
of presently classified “government” forests. Around 135 000 members of forest
peoples are directly affected – these include the Elgon Ogiek and 
Sengwer communities.

The case has also given indigenous
peoples throughout Africa resounding legal recognition that they exist and are
due the support of international law.

And restitution in general will be
advanced in Kenya. This is 
in law
one of the remedies for historical land injustices, but it’s never applied.

All customary
around the continent can look to the judgement as a source of
support for legal recognition of their tenure as lawful possession. While ten
or so states 
have taken this position since the
1990s, it remains weak or absent in 40.

The judgement will also boost
conservation strategies that look to communities to conserve vulnerable
protected areas. The right to evict traditional owners in the name of
conservation has been dealt a body blow.

Implementing the judgement

This is a tricky
question. The court ruled that reparations will be decided in a separate
decision once it has heard additional submissions from both parties.

The Ogiek were clear on their asks;
compensation for the hardships and losses they have endured, guarantees of
non-repetition of evictions and denial of their land, cultural and development
rights without their consent, and most of all, restitution of their lands and
the right to occupy and conserve them.

While the government of Kenya can be
expected to protest each demand, and compromises will be made, the court has
set the bar high on all counts by establishing that violations have occurred in
all these areas and must be remedied.

Moreover, Ogiek asks have the support of
Kenya’s new constitution which 
provides for community lands as a lawful
category of property. This includes “the ancestral lands and lands
traditionally occupied by hunter-gatherer communities”.

Nevertheless, as ever, on the continent,
the surest route to compliance will be pressure from citizens. It is in the
interests of at least 18 million customary landholders in Kenya to apply this

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.