Conserving injustice: The unnecessary ongoing eviction and displacement of Sengwer communities in Embobut

Conserving injustice: The unnecessary ongoing eviction and displacement of Sengwer communities in Embobut

The Sengwer community at Embobut has been dispersed, with most still living in their forests and glades high in the Cherangany Hills despite the evictions by the Government’s Kenya Forest Service (KFS). There they hide from the forest guards’ harassment, from having their now makeshift and temporary homes burnt and basic household property destroyed, as well as from being threatened with arrest despite the existence of a High Court injunction forbidding such harassment and evictions.

These evictions began in the colonial era, under the pretext of conservation, and despite the fact they have sustained their forest for millennia. Repeated evictions left the lands open to exploitation by those who have no interest in its survival. The only just and effective solution - securing ‘community tenure on conservation conditions’ - was presented by World Bank and IUCN community forestry experts at the Colloquium that brought communities and Government together in March 2015. This might seem ironic given the Bank’s role in enabling KFS to carry out such evictions, and given IUCN’s history of advising in favour of evictions. But the World Bank’s Inspection Panel had led it to think again, and IUCN has sought to rethink its approaches (see e.g. IUCN’s Whakatane Mechanism). Whether the Bank or IUCN sustain a rights based approach, or return to supporting the old approach if those with power seek to ignore Kenya’s 2010 Constitution, remains to be seen.

The Inspection Panel criticized the Bank-funded Natural Resource Management Project (which ran from 2007 to 2013 at Embobut and elsewhere) for being non-compliant with the Bank’s safeguard policies. It stated that the NRMP failed to adequately identify, address or mitigate the fact that the institution it was funding (KFS) was, and still remains, committed to eviction ‘before, during and after the conclusion of the NRMP’ (World Bank Inspection Panel Report: paragraph 27, Executive Summary).

Kenya is progressing with a Forest and Conservation and Management Bill and a Community Land Bill, which are both at committee stage in Parliament, and which – depending on the outcome - could help reach a just and effective solution, or could run counter to the constitution and to conservation science. Meanwhile, the National Land Commission (NLC) has the chance to step forward and fulfil a key role it is tasked with by the Constitution, by addressing historical and current injustices against such communities.

Support for the NLC, for communities, and for strong legal input into legislation over the year ahead, will be crucial to determining the outcome. As will whether IUCN, the World Bank and other key development partners to Kenya - such as the Finns and EU - stand aside and accept an unjust, unconstitutional and unworkable eviction-based approach, or work with the NLC and other arms of Government to ensure success for all except those the Sengwer call ‘elites’ who they see as local, national and international: those who are first in line to profit from the so called livelihood projects, the ‘compensation’ schemes, and all the other processes that are used to hide the marginalisation of a people and the exploitation of the remaining forest and glades.

Here are two Sengwer responses to the situation, first a man and then a young woman:

“The most important thing when it comes to indigenous peoples is the recognition of our rights to live, own and conserve our ancestral lands without any evictions. The recognition of our rights is the most important thing because when people look at climate change and REDD issues people look at money, livelihoods, etc., but in the case of indigenous communities the most important thing is for us to secure our lands to keep our identity, and to enjoy our life as other communities do all over the world... Indigenous peoples should not be seen as destructors, but as the people who have been conserving the forests for such a long time, Recognising our rights to live in the forest is part of the solution to climate change... Even if they [KFS] continue burning our houses to force us out of the forest we will keep returning to our forests. The evictions and burnings has forced our community to live in caves, in the open, in the cold in the high hills, so many have got pneumonia.” (Yator Kiptum)

“It is a lie when Kenya Forest Service says they are kicking us out to protect the forest. They are kicking us out to be able to destroy the forest without us seeing it and stopping it. Before they came it was us who protected the forest. There should be an analysis of when this forest destruction began: it was when KFS came in. For them the motive is money, they want to keep us out, so they can give tenders as they want, without any community member being around to see and stop them. The forest is our lives... You can’t care for the forest when they don’t let you care for it. People can’t go to school. School is no more. Women have no rights, because they are assaulted and beaten. The environment is also violated. With the destruction of the forests we are going to lose plants and animals that we have cherished, and we are going to lose our culture, our life, ourselves” (Milka Chepkorir)

For further information see the recent Presentation made by Yator Kipum (Sengwer Indigenous Peoples Programme / Forest indigenous Peoples Network) at COP21 in Paris, December 2015