Struggles of Indigenous People amidst COVID-19

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endorois evictions

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected Kenya in an unprecedented manner. The government of Kenya reacted by announcing far reaching measures, such as reallocation of public funds, local and international appeal for assistance, among other measures. At face value, these measures would appear like coordinated interventions to reach out to everyone in the country. Unfortunately, this is not the case as indigenous populations in the country who are already marginalized and vulnerable remain exposed and isolated further. There are underlying systemic issues that expose indigenous peoples to higher risks of COVID – 19 pandemic. There is a general lack of recognition on the ways of life of indigenous people, leading to their continued marginalization. There are also no holistic measures adopted to suit the contexts of most indigenous peoples such as hunters and gatherers, forest dwelling communities and pastoralists.  

With the various measures being instituted all over the world to contain the spread of COVID-19, the lives of indigenous people are further compromised and endangered.  This is demonstrated by two recent developments among indigenous communities. Members of Sengwer community who were evicted in 2019 from Senin and Litii forests continue to live in camps of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) that are not conducive to cope with the pandemic. The ruling on Sengwer’s petition, No. 15 of 2013 that was delivered by the Environment and Land court in Eldoret on 13th May 2020, read in part: proclamation of Embubut Forest as a forest reserve in 1954, and its subsequent gazettement as a central forest in 1964, took away their ancestral land hindering their access to cultural and religious sites and use. That alternatively, they could consider to apply for licenses or permits to access the cultural or religious sites…

Likewise, members of the Samburu community were forcefully evicted from Nakijuka, Ntaro and Kirisia forests and their homes burnt to ashes by security officers. Even after members of the community held demonstrations on 29th April 2020, no protective measures or support were forthcoming from the government. Actions by the government only drove further this community to marginalization and poverty, no evidence of COVID-19 prevention and protection. 

A struggle within a struggle

Human rights violations that lead to discrimination and marginalization such as gender-based violence, xenophobia, homophobia, among others are usually about oppressive and exploitative power. Indigenous peoples have been organizing over the years against powers of all kinds that are hell bent on land grabbing, violations, and wanton abuses. This has led to their displacement to IDPs camps where lack of food is a stark reality. Indigenous communities also face a myriad of other challenges that make it difficult for them to comply with the requisite measures suggested to contain the spread of COVID – 19 pandemic. Majority of them live far away from basic services and supplies such as clean water, food, housing, medical supplies, information, among other necessities. Worse, even accessibility to reach them is a huge challenge.  

Many indigenous communities in Kenya are engaged in various litigations for recognition and protection by the state. In the case of Ogiek community, a ruling made in their favor by the Africa Court of Justice is yet to be implemented. This delay is a clear indication that the government of Kenya is not interested in recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples besides denying them vital basic services for their survival. This is in addition to the fact that the government has perpetrated cases of forced evictions and violations of indigenous people.  

Unfortunately, as is the case of many isolated people’s struggles, the larger citizenry in Kenya is not concerned with the struggles of indigenous people and the pathetic conditions of their continued marginalization. With many of us steeped in material centeredness, minding own business, and not bothering with others’ struggles, the myriad struggles of indigenous people are treated as business as usual by the government and many people in the country. This deepens further their marginalization and abuses. Prevention and protective measures to mitigate COVID – 19 are further marginalizing an already marginalized people. This is a case of isolation within an existing isolation. 

Agency of social movements

Social movements by their very nature and composition are in existence to transform the state, primarily by speaking truth to power. Access and participation in social movements by the most affected and deprived defines the relevance and sustainability of people’s struggles. Social movements in the country therefore need to be aware and include indigenous rights movements before, during and post – COVID 19 pandemic. Human rights defenders and organisations on their part need to recognize the efforts of social movements in marginalized populations and engage, network and support their struggles.

Hunter gatherer communities in Kenya have the will and ability to preserve and protect land, water, and forest. This is primarily due to the fact that their lives and existence depends on the forest.  The government of Kenya has for a long time humiliated these communities by giving concessions to loggers and aiding other forms of encroachment into the forests. The government then blames the forest dwellers for deforestation. This narrative has been proven wrong globally, such as in the case of the Algonquin Indians of Barrière Lake in Quebec, Canada. Their humiliation over the years, including abduction of their children to “civilize them” did not work to suppress the struggle for their rights.  Their long-drawn struggles for self-determination have led to respect, recognition and protection of their traditional homes and cultural heritage. Closer home, Ogiek community has rehabilitated over 70 hectares of land in Logoman forest. They have carried out the rehabilitation of indigenous forests based on the knowledge and expertise passed over orally through generations.

Recognising and appreciating actors who have been holding the forte is crucial in the linking and building on existing efforts. Indigenous rights groups are respected and recognized civil society organizations with credible and committed leadership. Anyone intending to support the struggles of indigenous peoples does not need to reinvent efforts. What is genuine and meaningful is to support existing efforts and initiatives by inviting leaders of indigenous peoples to the conversation about themselves. Indigenous people do not need unwarranted guidance from national NGOs. They are not asking for others to speak on their behalf. They are not voiceless, they have been silenced.  They are only seeking to be involved in the pursuit of solutions to their predicaments. COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that networking and empowering communities to protect themselves is more sustainable than charitable measures. Solidarity, not charity is necessary. This is the solidarity that appreciates indigenous knowledge and skills towards the common good.

Gitahi Githuku is a Human Rights Defender.

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