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Illegal Logging in Chuka Forest, Kenya


Magundu Ma Chuka, or the Chuka Forest, is a UNESCO Biosphere and World Heritage Site within Mount Kenya National Park and Forest Reserve inhabited by the indigenous Chuka people [2, 4]. It is an important environmental frontier as a habitat for many critical species such as endangered elephants as well as an important water source for all of Kenya [4]. Mount Kenya is one of the country’s five “water towers,” or natural landmarks rich in forest cover that capture rainwater and replenish freshwater sources [6]. The local tribe also depends on this forest for their livelihood, as they forage for resources such as medicinal plants, food, and firewood from the forest floor [4, 2]. Moreover, the mountain and its trees are sacred to the Chuka as the resting place of spirits. Although they used to perform spiritual rites and celebrations in the forest so that spirits would bless them, the community currently has restricted access to the land and are not allowed to perform their traditional ceremonies because they cannot afford to pay for forest use permits in the protected reserve areas [2]. The Chuka people have their own 3,000 member grassroots organization dating all the way back to 1934 during colonial times called “Atiriri Bururi ma Chuka,” or “Guardians of the Chuka Community Territory” (ABC) [2]. ABC was upset that their community did not give prior consent to designate their ancestral land as a protected area and received no compensation for their eviction. They also were not informed or consulted about tourism projects or extractive activities in the area. The Chuka also were concerned about the electric fence built to “protect” the reserve in 1997, which UNESCO research revealed was obstructing animal migratory patterns but was deemed necessary anyway for the sake of the animals, the tourists, and tourist facilities [3, 8]. However, the Chuka counterargue that the reserve protection efforts are more harmful and polluting than letting the community itself manage the area, and that the fence was more about policing the Chuka and preventing them from entering economically profitable places rather than ecological conservation [3].

The Chuka Forest has had a long history of instability. In Kenya’s colonial era, the Chuka community had been part of the Mau Mau uprising against British colonists, and had lost their lands during what was called the “Chuka Massacre,” though they did get legal rights to the land post-independence [8].  More recently, the Chuka have been concerned about serious environmental degradation owing to illegal logging that has resulted in vegetation loss and destruction, soil erosion, wildlife habitat loss, and many other damages [2]. Deforestation is a huge problem in Kenya, wherein timber industries contribute to 3.6% of the country’s GDP and 63.2% of the country’s energy supply [7]. Consequently, forest cover is now only 7% of the total land mass of the country [3]. The Chuka Forest is particularly attractive to loggers because of its exotic species such as cypress, muthaiti, mugumo, and blue gum trees, rare species of native tree that are highly profitable on the timber market as well as spiritually sacred to the Chuka [3].  Corruption is also very common in the forestry sector, causing a lot of tension between legally and illegally displaced communities and the perpetrators who benefit from it. A company called Kamweru Farm obtained a “forestry research” license from the Mt. Kenya Community Forest Association, which is supposed to be used for tree planting or forest fire prevention and other conservation activities. Even though commercial logging is banned on the reserve, the Kenyan Forest Service accepted this license in place of a timber harvesting permit from the District Forestry Office, and Kamweru thus began cutting down trees starting in 2000 [5]. The resulting deforestation immediately scared away wildlife and reduced the forest’s capacity to replenish water sources. The local government denied any illegal logging or permits [5]. The loggers also began planting non-native species such as eucalyptus trees, which are a cash crop that ruins soil conditions and outcompetes other plants trying to grow nearby [3]. 

ABC members felt that many of their rights in the Kenyan Constitution and international legislation were violated, so they began trying to negotiate their case in court. However, a lack of resources, documentation, and legal knowledge meant that their negotiations attempts always failed [3]. During these years of struggling with the legal system, Chuka people were also beaten and shot at during their regular patrols in deforested areas, with one ABC member dying from the shootings. ABC members as well as the Chuka tribe were formally recognized by the Kenyan government to have legal access to their community land to lobby for conservationism, yet they were constantly accused of illegal trespassing [6]. ABC did not give up, however, and in 2011, they began collaborating with human rights lawyer and community elder’s daughter Wendy Wanja Mutegi (also known under pen name Wanjiku) on their case [2]. Mutegi is also a community organizer who currently chairs the Law and Social Development Trust (LASODET), an organization dedicated to defending indigenous and environmental rights [1]. With Mutegi’s help, they filed another lawsuit demanding the protection of their ancestral home in April 2014 [1, 2]. Mutegi also surveyed the forest to map the damages with government officials, but was later never able to get the information back [9]. The court responded by initially revoking the licenses of logging companies in the area in June 2014 [2,3]. Mutegi estimated that without this order, the forest would have lost nine million trees [3] Yet a few months later, the court gave the licenses back anyway [2]. In response, Mutegi led 400 community members in a peaceful occupation protest in the forest lasting three weeks, during which 19 of them, mostly elders between 70 and 80 years old, were arrested for illegal trespassing [2, 4]. They were released on bond for the equivalent of $500 each [10]. The cases for their arrests still have not been resolved to this day. The hearings have been postponed many times, key witnesses failed to show up (such as the forest guards) or disappeared, and the process has been delayed for years. Mutegi says that this is a clear indication of a criminalization strategy by which repeatedly delaying the legal processes is meant to reduce community morale and obstruct justice [3].

Shortly after, Mutegi then began receiving bribes as well as threats to her safety [4]. She and various other community members were being stalked and Mutegi herself was warned repeatedly that if she wanted to live, she should stop helping the Chuka case. Yet she did not take the threats seriously until one incident when she was kidnapped at approximately midnight when getting out of a bus near her home. Two of the bus passengers grabbed her and pushed her into a nearby car and brought her to a mugumo tree landmark where a dozen disguised captors forced her to swear that she would abandon the case. As a 48-year-old single mother worried about her family and her safety, she responded however they wanted so that she could survive the night. After being held captive for 33 hours without food or water, she was dumped at dawn at the same bus stop and did not report the incident to the police. She is still receiving trauma counseling for that and future incidents which would happen to her [4]. Regardless, she still bravely continued representing the Chuka in court, and managed to prevent the construction of two tourist hotels worth billions as well as ban five licensed logging companies operating the Kiamuriuki plantation [8]. 

On September 17, 2014, Mutegi, while escorted by local Chuka bodyguards, was on her way to court to present a  community report on illegal logging activities in Chuka Forest recording their destruction of about 25 hectares of forest, but was blocked by forest guards who threatened to arrest them [1, 9]. She then had to reschedule the meeting to October 2, 2014 [1]. On September 19, at approximately 16:00, three unknown men followed Mutegi to a hotel where she was meeting a friend. She recognized one of the unknown men sitting nearby as one of the loggers she was fighting against, so she left the hotel. The men followed her as she boarded the next bus out of town, also getting on the bus. One sat next to her and the other two sat behind them. She asked the driver to let her off the bus, and when she got off, so did the men. She tried to take out her cell phone, but the men warned her not to try. They told her that if she wanted to live, she would cancel her court appearance, and that they knew where she was living in hiding in the nearby town of Meru and even where she hides in Nairobi. Before they left, they gave her an ultimatum of 7 days to withdraw the case and that they would track her if she dared to report them to the police. Consequently, on September 23, she canceled her court hearing and her scheduled community meetings for fear of being attacked [1]. Tenacious as always, however, Mutegi and the Chuka continued to fight. In February of 2018, Kenya banned logging for approximately 18 months before senators had a huge fight over revoking the ban because of an alleged resulting rise in unemployment and construction costs [7]. On March 1, 2019, the Chuka finally won a case in which the National Land Commission agreed to give them legally protected community rights to 4,046 out of 10,117 hectares of their disputed land as well as to set aside 810 hectares as a buffer zone [8]. Although they are grateful for at least a partial victory, the Chuka overall feel that indigenous groups are at their lowest point in Kenya because of constant harassment [8, 6]. Mutegi continues to receive death threats for her advocacy, but the government has not done anything to investigate the threats. She now needs to work while constantly escorted by international NGOss for her protection [12]. 

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Illegal Logging in Chuka Forest, Kenya
State or province:Tharaka-Nithi County
Location of conflict:Chuka
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Biomass and Land Conflicts (Forests, Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Management)
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Land acquisition conflicts
Logging and non timber extraction
Specific commodities:Timber

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Illegal logging is widespread in the country, both for timber and fuelwood, causing many conflicts. There is extensive encroachment into the edges of indigenous forests. The indiscriminate/uncontrolled selective cutting of rare tree species means that even with the ban on commercial logging, over 6,700 Camphor (Ocotea usambaresis) trees had been destroyed in Mt. Kenya forest in only one year (2007). Over 75% of cut trees are not replanted, exposing the land to soil erosion [11]. Logging companies pay local youths to go deep into the forest at night, cut down indigenous trees, and carry them out by hand. The community further alleges that KFS officials and local leaders are complicit in the scheme, otherwise it would be impossible for the trees to be carried out undetected or sold at market without the proper certification. According to Wendy Mutegi, these illegal practices are financed by rich people such as the chairman of the Community Forest Association [12].

Project area:9,712
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:19,347
Start of the conflict:06/12/1997
Company names or state enterprises:Kamweru Farm from Kenya - Perpetrator
Kenyan Forest Service (KFS) from Kenya - Corrupt governmental body
Mt. Kenya Community Forest Association from Kenya - Corrupt governmental body
Relevant government actors:District Forestry Office, National Land Commission, Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources
International and Finance InstitutionsThe World Bank (WB) from United States of America - Investor
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:World Conservation Union, Rhino Ark Charity, Law and Social Development Trust (LASODET), Atiriri Bururi ma Chuka (ABC)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local ejos
Landless peasants
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Land occupation
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Official complaint letters and petitions
Street protest/marches


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover
Potential: Desertification/Drought, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Militarization and increased police presence, Land dispossession
Potential: Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Corruption
Criminalization of activists
Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Court decision (undecided)
Under negotiation
Violent targeting of activists
Application of existing regulations
Project temporarily suspended
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:The Chuka people have recently won jurisdiction of a small portion of their original territory and there have been several temporary logging bans. Yet there is still a lot of complicity between the state and corporations, no resolution of cases for the 19 arrested protesters from 2014, and community members and Wendy Mutegi still receive death threats.

Sources & Materials

Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

Law & Social Development Trust (LASODET) & 2 others v Attorney General & 12 others [2014] eKLR

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Fencing and Forest Conservation: Attitudes of Local People Living Adjacent to Eastern Slopes of Mount Kenya



Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

[3] Atiriri Bururi Ma Chuka

[4] Terror at midnight: abduction trauma of Kenyan woman fighting for forests

[5] Logging in Mount Kenya forest pits politicians against local community

[1] Kenya: Human rights lawyer Wendy Wanja Mutegi receives threats


[6] Kenya’s forests squeezed as government pressures environment groups

[7] Kenya logging ban: Do senator’s claims about GDP and demand add up?

[8] Chuka elders delighted by return of 10,000 acres of ancestral forest

[9] Lobby group raises red flag over logging of indigenous trees in Mt Kenya Forest


Other documents

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

ABC Trust Members of the Atiriri Bururi ma Chuka community group during a recent meeting in Tharaka Nithi County in the central part of Kenya, to lobby against illegal logging. Photo by David Njagi.

Timber from Chuka Forest Members of the Atiriri Bururi ma Chuka community group show timber being logged from Mt. Kenya forest. Photo by David Njagi.

Meta information

Contributor:Dalena Tran, ICTA, [email protected]
Last update12/01/2020



Timber from Chuka Forest

Members of the Atiriri Bururi ma Chuka community group show timber being logged from Mt. Kenya forest. Photo by David Njagi.

ABC Trust

Members of the Atiriri Bururi ma Chuka community group during a recent meeting in Tharaka Nithi County in the central part of Kenya, to lobby against illegal logging. Photo by David Njagi.

Wendy Mutegi

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