Nairobi, December 29, 2017 – In a remote region of Kenya this week, a government agency — flush with funds from the European Union—is sending armed security guards house to house to frighten Sengwer villagers into fleeing the forests that are rightfully theirs.
This assault began a scant three weeks after EU officials received assurances from government officials that the Kenya Forest Service and its partners had not violated—and would not violate— the human rights of communities living in the region covered by a EU-funded conservation project known as the WaTER Tower Program.
In June 2016, the EU and the Kenyan government launched the Water Towers Protection and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation (WaTER) to support the eradication of poverty through making the ecosystems of Mt Elgon and Cherangany Hills more productive. The EU has committed €31 million to the six-year programme, which will run through 2020.
The project was sold as a win-win for the environment and for local communities, but the Sengwer don't see it that way.
They have repeatedly experienced forced evictions at the hands of the KFS. Its wardens have regularly burned Sengwer homes, along with stores of food, blankets, school uniforms and books, while rendering thousands of people homeless in what can be a cold, wet region in the uplands of Kenya. For example, in the days following the visit of an EU Human Rights team in March 2017, one Sengwer community member was shot at and badly wounded as he sought to document the evictions and burning of homes.
Despite violating the Sengwer people’s constitutional right (Article 63.2.d.ii) to live in their ancestral lands, lands that are currently Forest Reserves, the evictions continue today.
They take place in the name of conservation and in denial of a growing body of evidence—backed by human rights law—that suggests environmental objectives are best achieved with the recognition of indigenous peoples’ ancestral land rights. Conversely, the research shows that evicting these local "forest guardians" places forests and other natural resources at greater risk of destruction by outside forces.
The Sengwer urge the EU to suspend all funding to the agencies charged with implementing the WaTER Towers project, including the KFS, whose armed guards are in Embobut forest this week to evict the Sengwer from their forest homes.
The apparent goal is to act under cover of the Christmas holiday, at a time when the EU is in recess and the foreign press are on holiday.
The Sengwer call on the EU to make urgent and high level representations to the Ministry of Environment and to the KFS to demand an immediate halt to the evictions of the Sengwer and to ensure the immediate withdrawal of armed personnel from the region.
The Sengwer ask as well that the EU use its role as funder to ensure the Ministry and KFS commit to supporting the efforts of the Sengwer to conserve their ancestral lands, with the support of conservation agencies. This is the most effective approach to conservation, one that begins with the recognition of the rights of the Sengwer people, and not in violation of those rights.
The story of the Sengwer is not unique. Like millions of Indigenous and other rural peoples in Africa, Latin America and Asia, they have become trespassers on their own lands. And the problem is not theirs alone. Failure to secure land rights for rural communities represents a global crisis; it puts at risk lives and livelihoods, as well as the priceless treasures of biodiversity. And it undermines humanity's ability to confront climate change, poverty, hunger and political instability.
On 26 May 2017, the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights ruled that the Kenyan government violated the rights of the Indigenous Ogiek people--an indigenous people from the forests of the Mau Complex-- when it evicted them from their lands.
The Court's ruling set a precedent, making clear that evicting such peoples not only violates their human rights but leaves their forests vulnerable to destruction by outsiders.
The WaTER project continues to trample on the rights of the very peoples whose presence has provided some protection against the destruction of their indigenous forests by outsiders. It needs to instead strengthen their rights.
The Sengwer are one of the last remaining forest dwelling peoples of Kenya, but their way of life is threatened with extinction. Kenyan and European leaders have the power to stop the destruction of these indigenous forest guardians. But they must act now.