Violence escalates against the Sengwer of Embobut Forest, Kenya

Violence escalates against the Sengwer of Embobut Forest, Kenya

Shortly after a visit from an EU delegation last week, Kenya Forest Service (KFS) guards based at Tangul, Kipsitono and Maron KFS camps carried out intensive evictions according to Sengwer witnesses, with KFS allegedly having since burnt down over 90 Sengwer homes and destroyed their property.

The Sengwer of Embobut Forest, Kenya, had requested a visit by the EU delegation to be able to explain why they fear that the EU funded WaTER conservation project will have the same drastic impact on their community as the previous World Bank Natural Resource Management Project (NRMP) project. 

In particular, the Sengwer are concerned that the EU project will strengthen the ability of the KFS to evict them from their ancestral lands, thereby leaving them and their forests in peril.  After agreeing to the visit, an EU delegation met with the Sengwer on the 29th and 30th March allowing the community to explain their situation.

The follow on action by KFS guards was almost immediate. Unlike during previous evictions, the Sengwer are shocked that KFS guards are now shooting with live bullets. On the 2nd April, one of the Sengwer youth leaders, activist and photographer Elias Kimaiyo was shot at, and had an arm broken, by a KFS guard. Before being attacked, Elias was taking pictures of burning Sengwer homes, as he has been doing over the last few years, to record KFS guards’ destruction of his community’s homes and property, and the harassment of his people.

While taking pictures, Elias was on the phone with the KFS Ag Regional Commandant complaining about the burnings and the destruction of property. Elias tells how KFS guards spotted him and started chasing him and shooting. He reports that, when he fell down, one of the KFS guards got hold of him, hit him with the butt of a rifle, breaking his upper right arm. When community members raised the alarm, the KFS guards ran away, taking Elias' cameras and other equipment. Elias was urgently taken to hospital, where he is now recovering.

The Sengwer report that the Regional Commandant told them that KFS will continue with the evictions and shootings, because they are acting within the law and Constitution of Kenya. The Constitution, however, recognises the rights of ancestral hunter-gatherer communities (such as the Sengwer) to their lands. The Sengwer are currently in court seeking a resolution of the matter, with a conservatory order in place that should prevent such evictions. It is not unusual for the Sengwer to be harassed and have their homes burnt, but the intensity of the burning and the violence against people shows that the situation is escalating.

The new 2016 Community Land Act, and the regulations for the Act that are currently being written, could potentially create a real turning point for such communities seeking to secure their lands. The intensification of violence against the Sengwer goes completely against their constitutionally recognised rights to their lands.

The Sengwer have written to the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Environment and Human Rights, seeking urgent help. In her July 2016 report to the UN Human Rights council, the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples repeated her “long-standing concerns regarding the repeated evictions and forced displacement” of the Sengwer from the Embobut forests (2016: 19).

They have also written to the EU about the EU WaTER project’s funding for KFS, and the fact that that the WaTER project has not taken the Sengwer’s existence and human rights into account. They have also written to the World Bank, which had promised to address the appalling legacy of its 2007-2013 NRMP project,  and to the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Environment, seeking help to stop the human rights abuses.

Despite the daily harassment, the Sengwer continue to propose a rights-based, constitution-compliant, science-informed, customary approach to forest conservation to replace the colonial approach that the British first brought to Kenya with disastrous consequences for communities, citizens and conservation. Modern conservation science is very clear that forest conservation by indigenous communities is not only just, but is far more effective than state-controlled protected areas, especially those that are based on evicting the very people who care the most for those lands.

For the Sengwer, this is their home. Their very attachment to their lands is why they remain, despite harassment which, should it be successful, will leave their lands at the mercy of those who have no long-term care or commitment to their ancestral lands, and leave the Sengwer themselves destitute and deprived of their human rights.

The Sengwer have requested the following urgent assistance. They:

  • "Urgently call upon the Kenyan government to stop the evictions and shooting of members of Sengwer indigenous peoples by KFS guards and other security agencies in Embobut forest with immediate effect and carry out investigations of the evictions and shooting of members of Sengwer indigenous people living in Embobut forest by KFS guards.
     
  • "Urge EU, World Bank, UNDP, Finnish Government, IUCN and other conservation related funders to work with KFS, the National and County Governments to ensure our forests are secured through securing and supporting the rights of forest indigenous peoples to live in, govern, manage and own our ancestral lands in order to protect our lands. This is in line with the need for conservation, and in line with our customary ways of governing and protecting our lands. Should our rights and our ability to conserve our lands continue to be violated rather than secured, recognized and protected, then we request EU, World Bank, UNDP, Finnish Government, IUCN and other conservation related funders to suspend their programmes and projects in Kenya until these rights and responsibilities are recognized and supported.
     
  • "Urge the initiation of an efficient and effective dialogue process between Sengwer and other traditional forest indigenous peoples and Kenya government  (including Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, Ministry of Water and Irrigation, Ministry of Lands, National Land Commission, County Governments, etc.) to ensure ancestral forest community’s rights are respected and we can work together to secure our forests, with support from the EU, World Bank, UNDP, Finnish Government, IUCN and other conservation related institutions.
     
  • “Seek that all actors ensure the free, prior and informed consent of the Sengwer is obtained with regard to any programmes implemented in Embobut Forest.
     
  • Call on the EU as the main donor for the WaTER Project, to urgently institute an investigation, to verify the evictions carried out by the KFS guards immediately after the EU visit, and include as part of that investigation officers from OHCHR, KNCHR, MENR, NLC, County Government, National Gender and Equality Commission, Commission on Administrative Justice.”