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 . 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 . 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 . 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) . 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 .
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 . 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 . 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 . Consequently, forest cover is now only 7% of the total land mass of the country . 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 . 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 . 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 . 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 .
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 . 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 . 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 . 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 . 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 . 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  Yet a few months later, the court gave the licenses back anyway . 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 . 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 .
Shortly after, Mutegi then began receiving bribes as well as threats to her safety . 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 . 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 .
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 . 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 . 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 . 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 . 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 .