A Humanitarian Crisis for the Sake of Conservation: the Sengwer in Kenya

Kerio River, Kenya

For decades, the Kenyan government has attempted to evict indigenous people from the forests of Embobut and Cherangany, in the western county of Elgeiyo Marakwet. Past tactics have even included torture and setting fire to homes, those affected say…The government – accused in recent weeks of preparing to carry out yet another forced eviction – maintains that communities living in 12 forest glades must leave so it can rehabilitate the degraded forest and the water services it provides to the surrounding regions and beyond.

“This is a government initiative aimed specifically at conserving the country’s second-largest water tower – nothing else,’’ said Inspector Stephen Chessa, who works for the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and is in charge of the Embobut eviction…

But one forest warder who preferred to remain anonymous told Thomson Reuters Foundation he and his colleagues had been instructed to evict forcefully anyone who resists the move.  On Monday, the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, expressed deep concern about this prospect, urging the Kenyan government “to ensure that the human rights of the Sengwer indigenous people are fully respected, in strict compliance with international standards protecting the rights of indigenous peoples”.  Most families are asking for more time to assemble their things and harvest crops before leaving the forest.   But Solomon Mibei, head of conservation for the KFS, said families would not be given extra time and the evictions would continue as planned. “They have no reason to continue staying in the forest – they were compensated,’’ he said.

The situation is complex because there are different communities living in Embobut: the Sengwer indigenous people; groups displaced by disasters and political violence; and others who have come to benefit from cultivation opportunities.  “Why should the government treat us equally with the victims of post-election violence and landslides?’’ asked Sengwer spokesperson Yator Kiptum. “The forest is our home – our case is different, it’s not fair at all.”…According to Article 63 of the constitution, community land shall be vested in and held by communities identified on the basis of ethnicity, culture or similar community of interest. Community land consists of ancestral lands and lands traditionally occupied by hunter-gatherers.

Justin Kenrick of the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), a UK-based rights organisation, said the government’s justification for evicting people is forest conservation, but research has long since shown that forests are best preserved not by evicting ancestral communities but by supporting them to regain secure rights to their land.  Payments to evictees by the government are “intended to distract the public and the communities themselves from addressing the real issues”, Kenrick said. “According to international treaties to which Kenya is a party, the Sengwer should have been consulted, and accepted or rejected the proposal,’’ he added.  Kiptum, however, claims the Sengwer were not consulted, did not sign anything, and have not agreed to hand over their land for the small amount of money that has been paid into some people’s bank accounts.  “You cannot create a humanitarian crisis for the sake of conserving biodiversity while there are other ways of doing it better,” said Stephen Cheboi, coordinator of the North Rift Human Rights Network based in nearby Eldoret town. He also called for an audit of the compensation process.

Excerpts from Caleb Kemboi, Indigenous rights clash with forest protection in Kenya, Reuters, Jan. 17,, 2014

See also Biodiversity and Human Rights

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