[Member Spotlight] Legal Empowerment in Practice: How the Ogiek are using the Law to Protect their Community Land

This member spotlight features an interview with @SAMORAI of the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program (OPDP) in Kenya. Their organization was founded in 1999.

What is your organization’s mission?

With a vision to empower Ogiek community in a Kenyan society that embraces equality and diversity, Ogiek Peoples’ Development Organization strives to promote and advocate for the participation, self-determination and improved human through enhanced inclusivity and of equal opportunity in the economic, social, cultural, and political spheres.

What kind of issues does your legal empowerment work address?

One of OPDP’s strategic priority is Land and Human Rights, which has been active for 17 years. Under this thematic area, OPDP has through the period employed legal empowerment in different phases during litigation for Ogiek land and human rights at the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Firstly, it has educated the Ogiek on laws relating to land and human rights and led them in coming up with by-laws and maps showing boundaries of their territories, presently serving as tools of engagement with national government and six county governments (Nakuru, Narok, Kericho, Baringo, Nandi and Uasin Gishu). Ogiek is found in selective parts of these counties within the boundaries of Mau Forest Complex. Secondly, filed a case on behalf of Ogiek against the Government of Kenya at the African Court for violating Ogiek’s land and human rights by consistently evicting them from their ancestral land in Mau Forest Complex. Thirdly, OPDP has trained 50 paralegals who are on the ground, daily documenting in audio and video formats violations meted on Ogiek.

How are you using legal empowerment to address the problems? You can include a brief example of a case to describe your work.

Human and land rights violations: Members of the Ogiek community are still faced by land grab and related challenges which include eviction threats, harassment, arrest, court charges, destruction and loss of property and lives in the event of evictions e.g. in March 2016 in Ngongongeri when a land rights activist was killed in cold blood as he resisted eviction.

The Ogiek land rights have been violated over time through dispossessions and ejection from the Mau forest for conservation purposes. The community has embarked on land rights activism and litigation to challenge the eviction from their ancestral land of Mau forest. This has been a long struggle where communities sought to resist dispossession as this was going to deny them access to resources such as water, pasture notwithstanding the denial of cultural practices by the community.

Land rights violations have necessitated community legal empowerments to support community capacity to engage with the authorities in defending and affirming their land and forest resources claims. Community organizing has been done, courtesy of Ogiek organization to unite the community and assemble claims to support their advocacy.

Ogiek court case implementation: Upon facing land rights violations Ogiek challenged the Kenyan government by involving the regional human rights mechanism of the African Court in 2012. The African Court on Human and People’s Rights on May 26 delivered its verdict in Arusha, Tanzania - ruling in favour of the Ogiek and recognizing their right to Kenya’s Mau Forest as their ancestral home, and their role in protecting it.

It is on these bases that the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Programme has initiated processes to fast-track the implementation of the Court decision through community sensitization. We are training elders, youths, and women to understand the Courts outcome to support in monitoring the ruling implementation.

What are major challenges you face in your work, and what are you doing to overcome them?

The Ogiek have been using legal means to challenge their denial of rights and access to resources. In 2009, following mass eviction notice by Kenya Forest Service, the Ogiek lodged a case with the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) arguing that the intended eviction will have far-reaching consequences on the political, social, and economic survival of the Ogiek community. In 2012, the ACHPR referred the Ogiek’s case to the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights (‘ACtHPR’), on the basis that it demonstrated serious and mass human rights violations.

On 26 May 2017, the ACtHPR finally delivered its landmark judgment in the case. The Court found the Kenyan Government had violated articles of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, with the violations amounting to a persistent denial of Ogiek land rights and their religious

OPDP has been conducting community-level awareness, sensitizations and training to support Ogiek understanding of the Human rights issues and mechanisms to address their Human rights including the constitution, laws and policies. This has helped the community remain vigilant to prevent as well as report violations meted on them. Further, the capacity building has enhancing community dialogue with the government in making appropriate demands in regard to resources and government opportunities.

About 50 community paralegals have been between 2012 and 2018. They play the role of human right monitors and community mobilizers giving legal education and documenting claims as well as reporting about community issues. Between 2015 and 2016, they supported community land documentation in the Community Land Protection programme with the Namati group where two communities were supported to map their land in parts of Mau forest.

What are the strategies you employ to ensure the long-term sustainability of your work?

OPDP has established a strong network of community paralegal and volunteers who have taken up the matter to support the community on matters related to land, legal education and access to justice.

These categories of people have been trained and continue to obtain refresher training to equip them with up-to-date skills to effectively undertake their duties as community facilitators and educators.

OPDP is a member of the human rights network in Kenya notwithstanding its membership to the National Coalition of Human rights defenders-Kenya where the community benefits from regular updates, training and other important resources to support their work. Through such partnerships, there has been reinforced advocacy for Ogiek land and human rights at the national, regional and international area.

Most important is the fact that the organization has observer/consultative status with bodies such as African Commission, Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) allowing them to raise pertinent issues for government attention.

Do you have any advice for other organizations about achieving scale?

The Ogiek case at the African Court’s was the first ever cases by the indigenous peoples in Africa and the first decision to consider the rights of indigenous peoples. The case therefore spoke to the Kenyan government and indeed other governments in Africa and beyond on recognition and respect of indigenous peoples’ land rights in order to secure their livelihoods and culture.

The ruling of the Ogiek case in 2017, made legal history and received significant media coverage from Kenyan, African and international civil society, by human rights practitioners and academics, and by indigenous groups in Kenya and East and Central Africa.

To over 40,000 Ogiek in Kenya the ruling provides mechanism for their recognition, and restoration of their ancestral lands of Mau forest. However, ruling is also significant to thousands other minority and indigenous peoples in Kenya and in Africa Region as it provides them with a unique platform to seek recognition of their rights as well as to advocate for changes in the law, policy and practice governing the rights of indigenous peoples.

The government of Kenya formed a task force mandated to look into the issues of the Ogiek and other indigenous peoples. The task force will also research and do country sensitization about indigenous peoples.

The ruling has become a learning case across the globe as it is cited across the world. Members of the Ogiek are invited to share in regional and International forum e.g. sharing with students at the summer school in Budapest University, Hungary, sharing with the Sans of Botswana (2019), and learning visits by the Batwa of DR Congo

In August 2018, the Ogiek peoples development programme (OPDP) was recognized by the International Lands Coalition at the Global Land Forum in Indonesia for demonstrating good practice on promoting people-centered land governance. OPDP show-cased the Ogiek litigation for restoration of Ogiek land in Mau.

Do you have any tips for other practitioners?

Consistency and Resilience

The Ogiek were unrelenting to follow through their course. Nevertheless, the Ogiek maintained faith, arguing that the ‘Mau forest is their only home’. They engaged the government through the presidency in 1996 and later through the parliament in1997 before proceeding to high court later in the year upon inaction by the government.

The community endured intimidations, violence and arrests as they held demonstrations to seek audience with the state.

With continued human rights violations the community occasioned by frequent evictions coupled with a stalled case in High court, the resolve was to engage the regional African Commission through a complain letter and the Ogiek matters got regional attention to organs to which the government subscribe to.

The Ogiek followed through their matter attending court hearings in Addis and ruling in Arusha Tanzania, a clear demonstration of ownership to the process.

Grassroot movements

Hundreds of young Ogiek climaxed the movement in 1999 to address recognition of Ogiek community and halting of discriminations and abuse to the community. This led to the formation of lobby groups like the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program (OPDP) to organize around issues that affected them.

OPDP working with paralegals documented Ogiek human rights violations and assemble evidence for the historic litigation at the African court. It also partnered with relevant organizations like the Minority rights group, International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs and Namati to empower grassroots advocacy through education, training and documentation.

Media coverage

The international media coverage in support of the Ogiek land and human rights case has been noteworthy. Stories of poor communities barely reach national media; talk less of hitting international headlines. However, the Ogiek people’s case drew the attention of international media, which highlighted the importance of indigenous peoples’ rights.

If you have questions or thoughts to share about this member’s work, please share them below


Member Spotlights are short interview profiles focusing on members of the Legal Empowerment Network. Spotlight articles use case studies to provide useful insights into the work of other network members. Whether you are working in the same country, with similar issues, or want to understand new legal empowerment approaches, the Member Spotlight is a useful learning resource. You can read more about other organizations in our network here or by searching spotlight in our forum.

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@michaelotto @ThinThinHtet @martaalmela Here’s the member spotlight for this week.

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