By New Internationalist

Kenyan security forces have been burning hundreds of homes – belonging to some of the country’s oldest hunter-gatherers – in the last fortnight, in the name of ‘conserving forest biodiversity’ and safeguarding the area’s water catchment area for urban access.

The Kenya Forest Service Guard, along with riot troops armed with AK-47 machine guns, began razing the thatched homes of the Sengwer community, estimated at 15,000, after a government deadline for eviction of the Embobut Forest community expired two weeks ago.

The Sengwer people, also known as the Cherangany people, are being forcefully evicted as ‘squatters’ by the government.

‘The Sengwer people, who have cared for the region for centuries, have been labelled squatters, and the Kenyan government seems willing to breach the country’s own constitution and court rulings. It pledged not to use force, but now it seems that as many 1,000 homes have been torched, together with blankets, cooking utensils and schoolbooks. For how much longer will old-fashioned ideas of “conservation” be used to justify the violation of tribal peoples’ rights?’ says Freddie Weyman, Africa campaigner at Survival International.

Hundreds of Sengwer families have fled into high-altitude montane forest after having their homes and possessions destroyed.

‘I was in the house with my four children. All their uniforms, our cooking pans, water containers, cups were burnt. There was no consultation. 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,’ said one 25-year-old Sengwer widow.

Brazen defiance

The World Bank is currently being investigated by its own inspection panel after the Sengwer community complained last year that a World Bank-funded project, the Natural Resource Management Project (NRMP), was responsible for redrawing the boundaries of the Cherangany forest reserves, thus displacing and marginalizing hundreds of members of the forest community. The project currently stands accused of legitimizing and funding the Kenyan government’s illegal evictions of the Sengwer people without consultation, consent or compensation, through arson and intimidation in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013.

The Kenyan Constitution of 2010 decrees that the government must protect and preserve the practices of those indigenous communities that have sustained their ancestral forest habitat for centuries. However, the Kenyan government is acting in brazen defiance of its own constitution by forcefully relocating indigenous communities without their free, prior and informed consent. Article 63 (d) of the Kenyan Constitution recognizes the rights of communities, such as the Sengwer, to own ancestral lands traditionally occupied by hunter-gatherers.

No consultation was undertaken and no consent was given by the forest community for their homes to be burnt or for their ancestral land to be captured by the state. As well as undermining the Sengwers’ constitutional rights, the government is also rejecting international agreements such as international human rights laws and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, to which Kenya is a party.

Burning Sengwer homes is a perversion of the country’s constitutional commitment to ‘respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use’ of biodiversity, as stipulated under the Convention on Biological Diversity. Forced removal of the Sengwer group is also in contempt of an injunction secured at the High Court in Eldoret forbidding any such evictions until the matter of community rights to their land is resolved.

‘Crucially, the constitution also states that ancestral land and the land occupied by traditionally hunter-gatherer groups such as the Sengwer is “community land”, owned by that community. None of these legal provisions is being respected by the government of Kenya in the recent evictions of the Sengwer from Embobut Forest,’ says Tom Lomax, legal expert at the Forest People’s Programme.

A misinformation campaign has been launched by the government. In order to justify its human rights violations against the Sengwer people and its broken international agreements, it has labelled the indigenous group ‘squatters’, despite the forest community having lived for hundreds of years in the Embobut Forest in Western Kenya, where they practise traditional modes of sustainable living.

Where else is home?

By conflating a large population of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), including landslide victims and victims of electoral violence who have settled in the Embobut Forest area, with the Sengwer community, the government is conveniently able to refer to all forest inhabitants as ‘squatters’ or ‘evictees’.

By doing so, the government is highlighting its own wilful refusal to recognize the rights of Kenya’s indigenous communities, or their conservation of ancestral land and resources. The Kenyan government has also insisted that the Embobut Forest inhabitants were ‘voluntarily evicted’ and that they have been adequately compensated for loss of livelihood and habitat.

In November 2013, the government indeed promised 400,000 Kenyan shillings ($4,600) per evicted family, enough to buy an acre of land or four cows. On 12 December, the local government announced that ‘the evictees were given the cash and have no reason to continue staying in the forest’ and that ‘by 3 January 2014, we expect all squatters out of that forest’.

However, the only people who had signed up for compensation were the IDPs, not the 15,000 Sengwer community members who claim the Embobut Forest as their ancestral territory.

‘Those who did not sign were Sengwer, who hold the forest as the last vestige of their greater territories, and also can’t for the life of themselves think where they would move to. Where else is home?’ says Liz Alden Wily, research fellow at the Rights and Resources Institute.

Wily says it is spurious for the government to declare ‘conservation’ as a reason for the Sengwer people to be evicted when they have protected and preserved the forest biodiversity of their ancestral habitat for hundreds of years.

‘The government is being congratulated on being hard line on the necessity to keep forests free of people, given their essential water-tower role. But this is not necessarily the way to protect forests, when you have to [evict] a committed indigenous forest dweller population which depends upon the trees remaining and who, given the chance, would protect these with their life,’ says Wily.

Livelihood desolation and eviction has loomed heavy over the Sengwer community since they were first dispossessed of land by the British colonial administration in the early 20th century. During the post-colonial administration in 1964, their remaining ancestral territory was gazetted and designated as a protected area, making their traditional hunter- gatherer lifestyle untenable. Since the 1980s, the Sengwer community have faced 20 evictions. This month’s eviction has been the most violent and systematic.

However, international rights organizations remain incredulous about the Kenyan government’s declarations that these evictions are in the pure interests of ‘conservation’.

‘Forests are profoundly fertile areas, and perfect for intensive tea cultivation and other commercial agricultural use. We need to look ahead, to keep an eye as to who in fact ends up using these areas. We have seen this repeatedly ever since the administration of President Moi [1978-2002]; a flurry of evictions, followed not by lasting conservation measures but by piecemeal excisions, turning these public properties into private enterprise areas,’ says Wily.

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