Kenyan Government torches hundreds of Sengwer homes in the forest glades in Embobut
The forcible eviction of the Sengwer communities from their ancestral lands began this last week, despite the interim injunction granted in the High Court at Eldoret against any such evictions, and despite the national and international Appeal against such unlawful action. For the latest update see below, and for the background to this see the section below that.
Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) has spent the last couple of days in Embobut Forest in Kenya, talking to communities who have had to flee from Kenya Forest Service (KFS) guards who this week began forcibly evicting the Sengwer indigenous people from their ancestral forest lands. The torching of their thatched homes in the glades in Embobut Forest continue, and we estimate that as many as 1000 homes have now been burnt.
We saw dozens of houses burning as we moved through Sengwer community lands. We heard that 30 armed KFS guards were ahead of us and had started burning homes at about 8.30am. We saw well over a hundred homes either burning or that had been burnt, and the area was eerily empty of people. People have run away out of fear. However those who had hidden near their homes came to talk to us, as well as the journalists we had brought.
When their homes are burnt, blankets, food and cooking utensils are also burnt, so children and the elderly are exposed to the cold and go hungry (Embobut forest is at a very high altitude, so it can be very cold and often wet at night). School books and uniforms are burnt too, so children cannot go to school – and the trauma of fleeing your home, while forest guards with AK47 and G3 assault rifles fire a shot into the air and burn your house down, is severe, particularly for young children. Where at the start of the week there had been 2,500 pupils at the primary school (almost all from the communities in the Forest), now there are 150.
On Saturday 18th January, the Judge at Eldoret High Court issued orders to the police to restrain the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), in order to make sure KFS finally obeys the interim injunction secured in March and renewed in November. This injunction forbids the KFS forest guards and the police from carrying out these evictions and these burnings of homes.
The order was served on the county police commandant, with and the Sengwer lawyer attending. One of the journalists’ reports:
"Eldoret environment and land court has issued a compliance order ordering the police to restrain KFS guards who are disobeying the interim injunction which ordered the police not to evict indigenous Embobut dwellers until the case is heard and determined on 6th Feb 2014.
Environment and land court judge Sila Munyao issued the order after three petitioners moved to court on Saturday claiming that the eviction is contravening the rights of the Embobut forest dwellers.
The order instructed the Attorney General, KFS, Elgeyo Marakwet county police commander and the Administration Police commander to restrain from evicting the Sengwer and should honour the previous court order awaiting the court’s outcome after hearing.
Earlier the Sengwer community had moved to court saying the matter should be referred to the National Land Commission which is tasked with addressing issues of historical land injustices.
There was drama at Iten police station after junior police officers barred petitioner’s lawyer Eric Gumbo from serving the office of the Elgeyo Marakwet police county commander with the order.
However the lawyer served the AP commandant successfully."
Following this, Sengwer representatives plan to file for contempt of court against KFS and all the other actors responsible for the ongoing burnings and harassment.
The evictions are featuring prominently on the TV news bulletins and newspapers. The interviews and films of homes on fire are hopefully starting to make an impact on a public that is being wrongly told by the government that these are squatters, rather than people for whom these are their ancestral and only lands. But without real global pressure the interim injunction against the evictions will continue to be ignored. The law is necessary but clearly insufficient to bring those responsible to task and end these human rights abuses.
Global and national pressure can unsettle the authorities enough to restrain them from further harm. Such attention can also help to enable people to grasp that this is not about conflicting values (human rights versus the environment) but is about people being evicted from their ancestral homes. Those unlawfully carrying out the evictions use ‘the need to conserve the forests’ as their excuse. Yet the people they are forcibly evicting are the same people who have been protecting their forests, and the Kenya Forest Service that wants to control the forests is well known both for evicting indigenous communities and for destroying indigenous forest.
Two peoples experiences:
One Sengwer woman’s home was still burning as she told us that she was hungry because they came to her home while she was making the morning meal an hour earlier, and she and her four small children had had to run. She came out of hiding and told us that:
"All school uniforms, cooking pans, water containers, cups were burnt. Now the children have to stay home while I find uniform and books. The children are very upset because we have lost everything. The children and elderly people will end up getting pneumonia because we don't have anything to cover ourselves at night"
This 25-year-old Sengwer widow continued:
"In October I went to the market place and heard there was a plan to give out money. I did not want to get money to leave. I was not offered money to leave. There was no consultation."
At another home a 19 year old Sengwer man told us:
"This is my fathers house, burnt at 8.30am yesterday [15th January]. Blankets, utensils, were burnt. My father and Mother and 6 children live here (aged from 8 to 19). It is like psychological torture for the children, and their schooling is really disrupted"
"We were not consulted. I heard about it from the chief in October in the market at Tangul. He said names are being listed so I was told to write my name, so I wrote my name and my name did not appear in the list. I do not want the money, I want to stay up here in Embobut because where you are born and where you go outside there it is not the same."
This matter is constitutionally required to be settled by the National Land Commission (NLC) through their mandate to address historical land injustices. The Sengwer are asking the High Court to pass their case on to the NLC to do exactly this. Sengwer representatives, together with representatives of the nearby Ogiek community at Chepkitale, Mt Elgon, as well as from other forest dwelling communities whose land has been designated as forest reserves, hope to meet with the NLC shortly. Meanwhile the burning, and the work to end the burnings, continues.
The Kenyan government describe the Sengwer as ‘squatters’; this couldn’t be further from the truth. The Sengwer have their rights to their ancestral forestlands enshrined in the Constitution and international law. Despite this, the Kenya government takes a colonial approach to forest conservation: evicting those who have protected their forests for centuries. It replaces them with the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) whose track record at nearby Mt Elgon demonstrates that when KFS is in control then indigenous forest is fast destroyed and the water system is disrupted, as profit making plantations and agriculture replace the biodiversity of the indigenous forest. This logic is amplified many times over by the – probably illusory – prospect of securing funding through REDD for KFS controlled projects which may benefit from first devastating indigenous forests and then promising to reforest using fast growing plantation species. The profit for the few that accompanies accelerating emissions, replacing the rights and needs of the communities and the population at large.
In 2007 the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) began receiving funding from the World Bank for a Natural Resource Management project (NRMP) and every year since then (apart from 2012) Sengwer homes have been being burnt by KFS guards in a process of harassment and intimidation that completely disregards the Bank’s safeguard policies, as well as disregarding the Bank’s own Indigenous Peoples Plan that was drawn up prior to the project and which highlighted the fact that unless the project secured Sengwer rights to their land, then far from improving livelihoods it would – as we have since seen – devastate communities.
Over this period the Sengwer were offered land elsewhere but each time refused to move from their ancestral lands.
In a change of tactic, the new President came to Embobut in November 2013 and offered 400,000 Kenyan Shillings to a list of 2,784 ‘beneficiaries’. These included the indigenous Sengwer, as well as internally displaced people (IDPs) who are mostly landslide victims, and those who have land elsewhere but have seen Sengwer land as available to cultivate since the Sengwer’r right to their land is not recognised.
400,000 shilllings may be a lot of money for an IDP or for someone who has simply come to benefit from cultivation. But if you are Sengwer and you have no land elsewhere, and eviction means being torn from your ancestral lands and the end of your community, then 400,000 is nothing and will soon disappear.
The list of ‘beneficiaries’ has never been made public, probably because so many on the list are not residents of Embobut. But more importantly, there was no consultation, and no agreement from the Sengwer. Many, or perhaps most Sengwer residents of Embobut are not on the list, and for them, and even for those Sengwer who had money placed in bank accounts that were newly created for them for this purpose by the government, none had agreed to giving up their land for this temporary amount of money that requires families to search for an acre of two elsewhere far from their own lands and far from each other.
Putting money into some peoples’ accounts was intended to distract the public and the communities themselves from addressing the real issues – it has misled the general public in Kenya to think the money was a fair and agreed exchange which the Sengwer have agreed to. In fact they agreed to no such thing, and according to international treaties to which Kenya is a party, the Sengwer should have been consulted and then accepted or rejected the proposal.
- Background information: How the World Bank is implicated in Embobut Evictions
- Timeline of events relating to the forced eviction of Sengwer communities from the Embobut Forest area of the Cherangany Hills, Kenya
- Press release, 6 January 2014 - Forced eviction by Kenya threatens indigenous communities' human rights and ancestral forests
- International appeal against the forced eviction of Sengwer communities in Kenya, 23 December 2013
- To add your organisation's name to the International Appeal against these illegal evictions please email Ville-Veikko Hirvelä firstname.lastname@example.org or Justin Kenrick email@example.com
- To sign the Avaaz petition 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.
The indigenous peoples in Embobut Forest are the Sengwer. There are no communities at Embobut calling themselves Cherangany. This was a mistake in the earlier FPP documentation (including in the Appeal) which was the result of our receiving mistaken information.