Loita and Purko Maasai resist IUCN plans for the Naimina Enkiyio Forest

A plan by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for the Naimina Enkiyio forest in Kenya has Maasai—who have seen past IUCN projects displace them from traditional lands—up in arms.

"[The British] moved us from Nairobi and Nakuru [in the early 1900s], but we shall fight current attempts to move us from Naimina Enkiyio," declared an angry Loita elder during a June 7 demonstration.

One thousand Loita and Purko Maasai gathered to oppose what they see as a takeover of the management of the 33,000 hectare forest in Kenya’s Narok district. According to reports sent to the Centre for Minority Rights Development (CEMIRIDE), violence erupted when police allegedly fired shots into the crowd of protesters and injured a number of Maasai.

The community says that a similar IUCN project in Ngorongoro in the 1980s forced Maasai to move out of the area to pave the way for the development of a national park. Two Loita/Purko support groups, the Forest Morans and Loita Concerned Citizens, are challenging the "manner in which the process is being handled." They say there appears to be a deliberate sidelining of certain members of the Maasai community. If the process is flawed from the onset, they say, there is reason to doubt the sincerity of the proponents of the European Union-funded project.

The activist groups say that by supporting the takeover, the Narok County administration has contradicted its 2002 statement that the Loita community has the right to conserve, protect, control, preserve, and own the Naimina Enkiyio. The IUCN’s stated intent for the project is to provide technical support to a forest management team selected by the Loita/Purko community and IUCN.

The forest, about 300 kilometers southwest of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, is considered a shrine by the estimated 40,000 Purko and Loita, as well as an integral botanical, ecological, and historical zone of Maasai land. It serves as an important dry season grazing zone as well as a source for numerous rivers and is home to a wide array of fauna and flora ranging from elephants to rare bird and plant species.

The cardinal spiritual leader Oloiboni Mokompo Ole Simel lives on the fringes of the forest as its custodian, providing spiritual insulation. The forest is a source for medicinal plants and the sacred white powder used by the Oloiboni. Nearly all of the community’s traditional rituals are performed deep within the forest.

The future of the Naimina Enkiyio forest has been debated since 1995 when the Narok County Council tried to gazette the area for tourism. Despite legal opposition from the Loita Maasai, this case has yet to be resolved.

IUCN regional representative Eldad Tukahirwa says the objective of the project is to reduce Maasai dependency on the forest by developing their livestock and "building their conscience on the value of the forest."

But Vincent Ole Ntekerei, spokesman for the Forest Morans and Loita Concerned Citizens, asserts, "Naimina Enkiyio is one of the few ungazzetted forests in Kenya, solely managed by the Maasai for centuries and therefore there is nothing new we would be learning from IUCN."

Tukahirwa said the project proposal was based on "a year and a half of consultations with the community." But those opposed to the plan argue that consultations were inadequate. While pro-IUCN stakeholders are well-represented in the proposed management body for the forest, the Loita Concerned Residents and Forest Morans have been left out. The groups allege that the Narok County Council has supported the IUCN because of the $2.6 million earmarked for the project.

Tukahirwa conceded that the current outcry arises from the "fact that a section of the community feels left out and that their interests are not fully being taken into account." He said he is prepared "to talk to the people who have concerns" and "take their concerns into consideration to harmonize everything to everyone’s satisfaction."

Amos Simpano of the Catholic Diocese of Ngong, Kenya, describes the IUCN’s project proposal to the European Union as "well-researched, detailed, and commendable," as it lays special emphasis on community involvement and participation at every implementation step. But he wonders, "If the project truly aims at developing local institutions to implement the management of the forest, [wouldn’t] those institutions not first have the support and ownership of the whole community?"