Kenya: the Forest Guardians´ Struggle

Ngai Mutuoboro was born in Chuka, Kenya, in around 1939, “when the colonisers had already arrived,”[1] that is to say, during the period of British colonisation. Ngai says that his community was stripped of its land by the colonisers. He believes that this was the main reason for the subsequent rebellion of the Mau Mau in this area: “the whites took the community’s land, that is the reason for the struggle, the land they took was never returned.”[2] During the rebellion, Ngai was a kind of secret agent who leaked information from the government to the movement, which was a very dangerous job, “when I was arrested I was beaten and tortured by the whites, they removed all my teeth. They sentenced me to death in 1953; it was thanks to God that I survived.”[3] A group of officials interceded for him, moved by his youth, as at that time he was just a teenager. While the rebellion did not have the hoped-for success, Ngai Mutuoboro has continued to fight for their lands to this day, and is one of the founders of Atiriri Bururi ma Chuka[4] which in English means Guardians of the Chuka Community Territory and is abbreviated to ABC Trust. The Trust is a grass-roots organisation, whose objective is to “safeguard the environmental rights and interests of the Chuka community,”[5] and which has led a persistent struggle for their ancestral territories from colonial times to the present day.

Wendy Mutegi, a human rights lawyer and daughter of a leader in Chuka advices the community. Photo: Delphine Taylor

The land reclaimed by the indigenous people of Chuka, is known to them as the forest of Magundu Ma Chuka, and is in part of what is now the Mount Kenya National Park and Forest Reserve. Magundu Ma Chuka has great spiritual and religious importance for the community. The mountain is the home of their spiritual beings and some trees are considered sacred. The community used to perform rites and celebrations in the forest in order to attract blessings to their lives. Ngai says that mugumo and muringa are trees with great spiritual meaning, and were used for medicinal purposes, “under the mugumo people used to pray to attract rain and fight hunger and evil spirits.”[6] Since Mount Kenya was declared a protected area, the community has been prevented from performing its traditional rites, “it is the forest authority that issues access permits to the forest, so to enter you must pay, you have to pay money because it is a reserve, even if you are going in there to pray”.

153. Kenia
Photo: Delphine Taylor

The community is also concerned about the serious degradation that the forest has been subjected to: vegetation reduction and destruction, soil erosion, restriction of wildlife movement, illegal logging and the introduction of species that affect the ecosystem,[7] are just some of the damages that have occurred in the forest according to ABC Trust.

ABC Trust’s advocacy strategies have reached the government. In 2011, on behalf of ABC Trust, Ngai contacted Wendy Mutegi, a human rights lawyer and daughter of a community leader in Chuka, to ask for her advice on the case.

The land reclaimed by the indigenous people of Chuka, is known to them as the forest of Magundu Ma Chuka, and is in part of what is now the Mount Kenya National Park and Forest Reserve

Following Wendy’s legal advice, the community have filed a lawsuit before the courts to demand the protection of their ancestral territory, and the judicial body responded initially by ordering the removal of the licences granted to some logging companies. However, a few months later, the court revoked the order. Because of this, according to Ngai, four hundred members of the community, led by the elders, decided to peacefully occupy the forest to protect their sacred trees. The group of protesters saw their mission frustrated, since nineteen of them, most between 70-80 years of age, were arrested for illegally occupying the forest. As a result of this, they are now facing legal charges.

Photo: Pia Uçar

Ngai says that the guardians of the Chuka territory will continue fighting as long as they live, but they fear that if things continue as they are, there will be no more forest. “We need help to work out how to continue fighting for the land”.

Ngai Mutuoboro and Sara Stephens (PBI Kenya). Photo: Hanna Szabo

The commitment of ABC Trust is truly inspiring, they are elderly people who, by listening to their ancestors, have continued to fight persistently for their lands, without expecting any benefit other than to return to inhabiting and protecting the forest. There is a nostalgic expression in Ngai’s eyes when he says that he might die without seeing the fruits of their struggle: “If they return the earth to us we could plant the trees again. Our trees are the ones that will bring rain again and save the forest.”[8]  They have been trying to recover the land for years now, but Ngai has not lost hope of living in his longed-for forest once more.

Delphine Taylor and Paulina Martinez, PBI Kenya


[1] PBI Kenya: Interview with Ngai Mutuoboro, Founder and member of the Atiriri Bururi Ma Chuka committee,  7 September 2017
[2] Ibid., Interview with Ngai Mutuoboro
[3] Ibid., Interview with Ngai Mutuoboro
[4] Ibid., Interview with Ngai Mutuoboro
[5] Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (Knchr): Letter from Patricia Nyaundi, Comission Secretary, to Kenya Forest Service Director, Reference: KNCHR/CID/PETGEN/vol.XI/2015, 8 December 2015
[6] Op. cit., Interview with Ngai Mutuoboro
[7] The High Court of Kenya T Meru: Petition No.9 of 2014, Point 14
[8] Op. cit., Interview with Ngai Mutuoboro

*Cover photo: Pia Ucar

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