Daughters for Earth Gathering: Indigenous Solidarity in the Face of Fortress Conservation

Aliya Ryan
March 13, 2024

Cover photo: Ogiek from Mount Elgon arriving at the workshop location leading members of our team. Photo credit: Arky

In November last year I traveled to the slopes of the sacred Mount Elgon, Kenya, to participate in the Daughters for Earth gathering, a meeting that brought together over fifty Indigenous Peoples from across central and east Africa. Women, men, elders and young people gathered to share experiences about land defense, and learn strategies and mapping techniques from the women-led mapping team of our hosts and partners, Chepkitale Indigenous Peoples Development Project (CIPDP)

Digital Democracy has been working with CIPDP since 2020. Thanks to support from One Earth (“Daughters for Earth”) we were able to co-convene this workshop. The timing of the workshop was prescient: all of the participant communities have been threatened with or already suffered evictions from their ancestral lands. One invited group, the Ogiek people of the Mau Forest, also from Kenya, was unable to attend due to forced evictions being carried out that same week by the government, in order to gain profit from Carbon Credit schemes, contravening rulings of the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights. 

Slopes of Mount Elgon rising in the distance behind some Ogiek participants. Photo credit: Aliya Ryan

The setting for the workshop, at the heart of a landscape cared for and cherished by the Ogiek of Mount Elgon for generations, perfectly held and nurtured our time together, as well as educating us itself. On the road up the mountain we passed areas cleared by settler farmers within Mount Elgon National Park, which only a year before had been forest. We saw the trails of smoke from charcoal burners encroaching up the mountain slopes, new deforested areas neighboring the Park and Forestry Commission Offices, and saw elephant dung, still wet and fresh from the early morning foraging of one of the forest’s most iconic and endangered inhabitants. We drove through a bamboo belt, and then a lush and diverse mountain forest before reaching the gathering location on the moss-covered plateau of Laboot, an Ogiek community consisting of huts and enclosures spread out with herds of tinkling, bell-carrying goats and sheep wandering amongst them, and the summit of Mount Elgon rising beyond. 

Maps for Internal Management and International Victories

The Ogiek of Mount Elgon have lost most of their ancestral lands through successive regimes of colonialism, national park creation and urbanization. However, most are still living within parts of ancestral Ogiek territory, in accordance with their culture. Their livelihoods are based around bee keeping, gathering bamboo shoots, nettles and other forest vegetables, and tending small herds of sheep, goat and cattle which, in a unique example of harmonious coexistence, mingle together and graze side-by-side with the forest elephants when they meet in clearings amongst the trees. Their livelihood strategies and community bylaws were also inherently protect the biodiversity, recognising the role the forest plays in Ogiek culture and their own role as custodians. 

Leah, a community mapper from CIPDP’s women led mapping team, demonstrating Mapeo Mobile which they used to collect data. Photo credit: Aliya Ryan

Members of the Ogiek community of Mount Elgon have been mapping their lands for over ten years. In 2020 we began work with them, alongside their longtime partners Forest Peoples Program, and with funding from VOICE, to train them to use Mapeo as a data collection tool. Over the following three years their women-led mapping team used Mapeo to collect over 5000 points, identifying places important in the history and current resource use of their people, and marking places with their Ogiek toponyms. The maps they produced have already won them victories, with some lands returned to them after a successful court case in September 2022, and more land claims currently in review. The maps are also enabling them to gain greater parity in negotiations with local authorities including, significantly, the forest and national park authorities, with whom they have now facilitated several fruitful conversations, turning the tables on what used to be quite fractious relationships to find paths of common ground and mutual support. However, over and above their use for advocacy purposes with other agencies, the mapping process and maps produced have played a critical role in building community consensus about land use, and have supported self-governance and internal management processes.

Peter Kitelo, director of CIPDP presenting at a meeting between CIPDP, the Kenya Forest Service, Kenya Wildlife Service and National Park Authorities with solidarity from Forest Peoples Programme and Digital Democracy, which happened in Laboot midway through the week-long Daughters for Earth gathering. Photo credit: Aliya Ryan

Sharing their Experiences, a Woman Centred Event

As the main efforts of their mapping work wound down in mid 2023, and the next stage of their territory protection started up with biodiversity monitoring work in collaboration with the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science at Oxford University, the Ogiek wanted to share their experience and knowledge with other community groups facing similar threats. The Daughters for Earth gathering was an opportunity to do this in a place and a manner grounded in their lived experience. The attendees, who traveled from Tanzania, Congo, Uganda and across Kenya, learned about mapping and land-based advocacy directly from people who have been practicing it successfully for the last few years, in the heart of the land which is being protected. The impact was palpable. 

During the five day event sessions included opportunities for each invited group to share their story and a map of their lands and threats; training in Mapeo Mobile; case studies about Indigenous mapping work from around the world; women’s and men’s circles; mapping for advocacy and more. A heroic team of chefs cooked up three delicious and hearty meals a day, and the evenings were rounded off by a dance party in the Community Resources Centre, with each group showing off their moves, music and rhythms: culminating in a 8 hour dance on the final night.  

Teresa from CIPDP facilitates a women’s circle at the Daughters for Earth gathering. Photo credit: Aliya Ryan
Ogiek participants from Chepkitale during the Daughters of Earth Gathering. Photo credit: Emily Jacobi

The gathering was particularly special, led as it was by the women-fronted team from CIPDP, and because half of the invited participants were also women. The Ogiek women shared how their involvement in the mapping work had begun, and how different their knowledge of the land and resources was to that held by men, complementing it and contributing to capturing a much more holistic and true picture of Ogiek territory use on the maps. The opportunity to see women taking on leadership roles in community mapping was inspiring to other women in attendance. We also created a women’s circle on the last day in which the women honestly reflected on their roles in holding community knowledge, and their hopes and fears for the mapping process. For us at Digital Democracy, this experience really underlined the value in creating and holding women-only spaces, and prioritizing their attendance at events from which they are so often excluded whether due to habit, childcare needs, or logistical barriers such as language and travel documentation, which often lead to men being the default representatives at such gatherings.

The youngest member of our team mingles with the cows on Mount Elgon. Photo credit: Aliya Ryan.

As a woman and mother myself, the trip was especially poignant being the first trip on which I have brought one of my children along with me; my one year old son played happily with children from Laboot, chasing after the goats, sheep and donkeys, cushioned by the mossy forest floor and cared for by new and old friends in a village which for a week became truly global. I was very grateful to have the support to bring him along, and be able to participate in a full and meaningful way in the gathering. 

Theresa from CIPDP team and Aliya from Digital Democracy team, presenting a session on Mapeo during the workshop. Photo credit: Emily Jacobi.

Evicting Rights Holders, a False Economy for Climate and Conservation

Alongside all the special moments and positive stories told, the context of the event was far from rosy. Many of the attendees shared shocking stories of eviction and the violence, discrimination, and loss of connection to land and livelihood which so often accompanies it. Too many of the evictions are being carried out by governments in the name of conservation, often supported by resources from high profile agencies with climate / environmental funds. Despite the evidence from forest dwelling communities, and empirical evidence gathered by others in diverse forms of research, many government agencies still refuse to acknowledge that local and Indigenous peoples are not only the rights holders to their territories, but almost always also the best custodians of it, pushing policies of Fortress Conservation, which exclude and alienate Indigenous peoples from their lands. In the case of our hosts on Mount Elgon, the primary reason there is any forest left on the mountain, and any forest elephants within it, is because of their presence living in, loving, caring for and defending their home and everything it contains. 

Participants at the gathering learning to use Mapeo Mobile to document their land. Photo credit: Aliya Ryan

Due to security risks, it is too dangerous to name the peoples or individuals who were present at the gathering. Many of them already face systemic discrimination in their home countries, and the work they are doing to mobilize around territory issues needs to be kept confidential to protect both those involved and the outputs of the work. However during the gathering we made important connections with many groups hoping to carry out urgent and important mapping work. Last month (February 2024) we supported an emergency territory mapping training workshop for one group who are threatened with imminent evictions. This group, whose work is being carried out with tight security measures and confidentiality, are trying to gather evidence of ancestral territory use and human rights violations, for use in legal cases, before losing access to land and ancestral sites. 

We have received other critical requests for support from groups who attended the gathering, and who have heard about it from allies, demonstrating the thirst and necessity for training, methodologies and tools currently present in this part of Africa, in addition to the high stakes and threats they are facing. Our team is urgently searching for funds and partners with whom we can work to safely expand our training capacity and support network in the area. 

The most powerful relationships to emerge from the gathering were the relationships that were forged between the Indigenous communities in attendance. For example one group visited from the other side of Mount Elgon, in Uganda, and they made a plan with the Ogiek to consolidate their land knowledge to build a view of pre-colonial land occupation. A strong sense of solidarity was built between the attendees, and also rekindled hope, and very real joy in spite of the problems they were facing. Building alliances is one of the most important things that Indigenous Peoples can continue doing in the struggle for their rights. These connections will continue helping them collectively face discrimination and also stay informed about policies and strategies that might impact them. 

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Aliya Ryan
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