Kenyan Government’s forced evictions threaten cultural survival of the Sengwer

"All their [school] Uniforms, our cooking pans, water containers, cups have been burnt. There was no consultation."
Justin Kenrick

Kenyan Government’s forced evictions threaten cultural survival of the Sengwer

The lead article in the last FPP E-Newsletter focused on the superb progress the Ogiek of Chepkitale, Mount Elgon, Kenya, have made in their efforts to secure their forests and livelihoods by writing down their sustainability bylaws and embarking on the process of enforcing them. This process has resulted in their arresting charcoal burners, and the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) has now begun to restrict some of the charcoal burners’, as well as encroaching agriculturalist activities that were leading to the destruction of the indigenous forest. 

 In contrast, this article focuses on the plight of the Sengwer of the nearby Cherangany Hills. In the last few weeks they have been subjected to the torching of their thatched homes and forcible displacement from their forests – thousands of homes have been burnt, and thousands of people have been forcibly displaced. This has occurred despite an interim injunction granted in the High Court forbidding such actions. This injunction was first obtained on 26 March 2013, and renewed on 21 November 2013. The burnings have also occurred despite a national, African and international Appeal, and despite the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples making a public statement on 13 January 2014 urging the Kenyan Government to stop the forced eviction of these indigenous Sengwer communities.  

What we may be seeing in Kenya is an end game in which a civil society-led process of entrenching human rights in the 2010 Kenyan Constitution, and recognising community rights in the draft Community Land Bill, is coming up against an elite that appears determined to appropriate community lands in complete disregard of the constitution, and before the Community Land Bill becomes law.

Forest peoples such as the Sengwer and Ogiek are working to regain their rights to their lands, and to develop the means to communicate and enforce their sustainability bylaws. This is in line with the new constitution and the best scientific evidence that forest communities securing their rights to their land is the most secure way to ensure forest conservation. At the same time, KFS and people in Government eye the potential REDD money they believe they may be able to gain if they have removed the indigenous communities from their lands, despite international and national law, and despite the fact that at nearby Mount Elgon we have seen that, left to themselves, KFS can put indigenous forests at risk. 

At no stage have the Sengwer of Embobut or elsewhere been meaningfully consulted in relation to resettlement, and nor has their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) been sought and obtained. There has been no reasonable benefit offered, nor has there been a remotely adequate offer of alternative land and compensation if they were to consent to resettlement. To the contrary, the Sengwer of Embobut wish to remain on their land, obtain title to that land and reparation for the harm experienced to date from forced eviction and harassment. The Sengwer also want to come to an enduring and amicable settlement with the Government of Kenya on ways that this can be achieved while also conserving the forest environment and ensuring environmental services for the benefit of all Kenyans.

On 15 November 2013, the Kenyan President, Deputy President and Senator Kipchumba Murkomen headed a government delegation to Embobut, where the President promised 400,000 Kenyan Shillings per family in Embobut for what he called the forest ‘Evictees’.[1] At no stage were the Sengwer meaningfully consulted in relation to this new resettlement proposal, nor was their free, prior and informed consent sought and obtained. Furthermore, a government representative also informed Sengwer community residents that they could accept the money being offered, and stay where they were living, as the money was to compensate them for past sufferings.[2] Some Sengwer are understood to have refused to put their names down on lists to receive money, while others who did put their names down, never received the money. In any case, none of those who did put their name down signed any document confirming their agreement to leave the forest. It is reasonably speculated that those who did put their names down and who had not heard that they could take the money and stay, may well have done so in the belief that they would almost certainly be evicted anyway. In summary, the Sengwer were not adequately consulted, and nor were they presented with any meaningful choice about their resettlement.

On  18 January 2014, the High Court at Eldoret gave orders that the County Police Commandant and County Administration Police Commandant enforce the injunction and prevent KFS acting in defiance of it (including by arrest). Unfortunately however, the Administrative Police were then witnessed supporting the KFS-led evictions. As the police are complicit in the evictions, it is clearly unlikely that the police will enforce the court injunction to stop the evictions. A Sengwer community representative stated: It is a disaster. The government of Kenya is forcing Sengwer community into extinction."[3] The Sengwer have appealed to the Finnish Government to withdraw their substantial funding from KFS until such time as KFS respects human rights. They have also appealed to the World Bank to desist from providing REDD funding to Kenya, especially since the Bank’s Natural Resource Management Project (NRMP) in the Cherangany Hills has been a precursor to REDD, and has built KFS capacity to carry out such evictions, evictions that happened in every year of the project (2007-13) except 2012. Significantly a request from the Sengwer to the World Bank Inspection Panel, asking them to investigate alleged violations of Bank safeguards and associated human rights abuses by the NRMP, was found admissible by the Inspection Panel which recommended a full investigation.[4] An investigation mission took place in the Cherangany Hills from 13-17 September 2013, and the investigation’s findings are expected in April 2014.[5]  

Meanwhile, on 27 January 2014, having originally denied that the KFS forest guards were burning homes, and then having accused home owners of burning their own homes, the County Commissioner, Arthur Osiya, admitted that KFS had been burning homes and that KFS would now demolish these homes, or what remained of them.[6] The County Commissioner (who seems to have taken a central role in coordinating the evictions with the KFS, its parent Ministry, and the police) has confirmed that houses are being burnt and that the government will continue to flush every illegal settler out of the ecosystem, even stating: “It may seem wrong and primitive to burn houses, but gentlemen, look, we have to face the reality in this one and tell our people that the forest is out of bounds henceforth”.[7] 

It has become evident that the evictions of Sengwer and other groups are being expanded beyond Embobut. As such the eviction represents a calculated attempt by the Government of Kenya to completely remove the Sengwer people from the entirety of the Cherangany Hills forest. If this is not prevented and quickly reversed, the Sengwer will come to exist entirely as a scattered diaspora, and almost certainly face cultural extinction thereafter, having lost the vital connection too land, resources and place, on which their culture is wholly dependant.

Justin Kenrick, Policy Advisor, Africa

Further information:

  • To sign the Avaaz petition against these illegal evictions, please click here 
  • Funds are urgently needed to continue the legal effort to stop these appalling evictions now, and to ensure that Sengwer families can safely return to the forest. To donate please visit this JustGiving page 
  • Kenya defies its own courts: torching homes and forcefully evicting the Sengwer from their ancestral lands, threatening their cultural survival. Click here to read more  
  • For background information on how the World Bank is implicated in these forced and illegal evictions, please click here 
  • For more background information and a timeline of events leading up to these evictions please click here
  • On 23 December 2013 Forest Peoples Programme and over 60 international organisations launched an appeal to stop the forced and illegal evictions of the Sengwer indigenous people. To view the appeal, please click here
  • For further information relating to this appeal please click here  
  • Kenyan Government torches hundreds of Sengwer homes in the forest glades in Embobut click here to read more 
  • Forced eviction by Kenya threatens indigenous communities' human rights and ancestral forests click here to read more

[1]     Sunday Nation, ‘How Embobut Evictees agreed to leave the Forest’ page 40, November 17 2013.

[2]     David Yator Kiptum/SIPP, pers comm.

[3]     David Yator Kiptum (SIPP), Pers comm.

[4]     The request to the Inspection Panel and other documents can be reviewed here 

[5]     For information on the World Bank project and associated Inspection Panel request, please click here

[6]     See following sample news reports for reference:
  • On 7 January 2014, the Daily Nation referred to Marakwet East sub-county commissioner Husein Alaso Husein as having confirmed that police would not burn houses or destroy property in Embobut. However the burning of Sengwer houses by KFS with police support started on or around the 10th January 2014 and is continuing to date. Click here to read more

See also: Ndanyi/The Star, Sengwer Cry Foul As Police Evict Embobut Forest Squatters’. Click here to read more

  • However, on 25 January 2014, when an evicted young man described on TV how "police came, kicked them out and immediately torched their homes", the County Commissioner Arthur Osiya ‘explained the reason behind the burning of the houses’ in the same TV program as follows: “[As there are] some individuals who are getting out during the day and getting back with the animals again during the night. So we decided that we should bring down all the structures so that we can fully take charge of the forest". (our transcription - see Citizens News, 25 January 2014)
  • On the 26 January 2014, it was reported that ‘the County Commissioner [Arthur Osiya] confirmed that houses were being burnt and the government will continue to flush every illegal settler out of the ecosystem. “It may seem wrong and primitive to burn houses, but gentlemen, look, we have to face the reality in this one and tell our people that the forest is out of bounds henceforth,” he said. Click here to read more

[7]     Id.

Children fleeing armed guards - Embobut, Kenya 2014
Guards approach a homestead, Embobut, Kenya 2014
Kenya Forest Service guards have been burning Sengwer homes forcing communities to flee their ancestral lands
Justin Kenrick