NAIROBI, March 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As Wanjiku,
a Kenyan land rights activist, stepped out of the minibus and
into the night, two other passengers pushed her into a nearby
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
"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.
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
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
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
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.
(Reporting by Katy Migiro @katymigiro; Editing by Belinda
Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the
charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian
news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate
change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)