This weekend, about 150 Sengwer Indigenous People walked to Nairobi to deliver a petition to President Uhuru Kenyatta. The petition, signed by 270,000 people, requests recognition of their land rights in the Embobut Forest.
Irũngũ Houghton, Executive Director of Amnesty International Kenya, writes that the petition asks the Government to “recognize them as custodians and conservators and allow them to live freely and peacefully in their ancestral Embobut forest.”
Human rights abuses in the name of conservation
The Sengwer have faced a series of human rights abuses, carried out in the name of conservation, at the hands of Kenya Forest Service guards. Between 2014 and 2018, more than 2,500 houses in the forest have been destroyed.
In January 2018, during a raid on the Sengwer’s land, a Kenya Forest Service guard shot and killed Robert Kirotich, a 41-year-old indigenous Sengwer man. Another man was wounded.
No one has been arrested or prosecuted for killing an unarmed man who was herding his cattle. The Sengwer have received little compensation or remedy for the loss of their homes and property.
The day after Kirotich was killed, the European Union suspended funding to a €31 million Water Towers Protection and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Programme.
Sengwer rights protected under the constitution
Houghton points out that the Sengwer qualify as a marginalised community under the Kenyan constitution and the state is obliged to protect them, their language and intellectual property from assimilation by larger communities.
The Kenyan constitution defines ancestral lands and lands traditionally occupied by hunter-gatherer communities as communal lands. Houghton notes that,
Converting Embobut into a community forest under the Community Land Act (2016) and Forest Conservation Management Act (2016) would protect the rights of the indigenous Sengwer people and task them to directly lead the reforestation effort. Like surrounding communities, their future depends also on the protection of the entire forest ecosystem.
In May 2017, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights ruled that the Ogiek have the right to live in the Mau Forest and that the government of Kenya was wrong to evict them. The Ogiek’s lawyer, Lucy Claridge told the BBC World Service that,
“This is an extremely positive outcome. It sends a very clear message to the government of Kenya, but also to other governments in Africa, that they must respect the rights of their indigenous communities, and that includes their land rights.”
Sengwer week of action and walk for justice
A group of Kenyan organisations put out a statement with the Sengwer Council of Elders in support of the Sengwer’s rights to their traditional lands in the Embobut Forest:
This weekend, 150 Sengwer leaders travelled 450 kilometers to the capital to present a petition to the President of the Republic of Kenya on Monday October 7. The petition is signed by 270,000 people from Kenya and beyond. The meeting takes place as the world commemorates the United Nations Global Day for housing and shelter, World Habitat Day.
The Sengwer have launched a week-long campaign dubbed “Week of Action” comprised of a series of activities between Monday, 7 October to Friday, 10 October. The week starts with #Walk4Justice from Cherenganyi Hills to Nairobi. The main purpose is to remind the state of its obligation to safeguard their right to ancestral land, end forced evictions and other human rights violations that have taken place in Embobut Forest for many decades. The Sengwer Indigenous People of Kenya, supported by Defenders Coalition, Amnesty International Kenya and 14 other human rights organizations, are calling on the President of the Republic of Kenya to recognize the right of the Sengwer to their ancestral land.
En-route to Nairobi, Sengwer Council of Elders Secretary-General Yator Kiptum says “We have remained a marginalized and forgotten community in our own country since colonialism. Our petition calls for restrictions to be lifted, house burnings, arrests and forced evictions stopped so the Sengwer people can live freely and peacefully on their ancestral land in Embobut Forest. Secondly we call on he Government to adopt a new approach to conservation which recognises our role as custodians of the forest and the Government’s partners in protecting the environment.”
“The Sengwer are an indigenous marginalized community who need to preserve their culture and identity. Articles 7, 11, 44, 59 and 100 (d)(c) of the Constitution of Kenya 2010, obligate the State to protect them, their language and intellectual property from assimilation,” Amnesty International Kenya Executive Director Irũngũ Houghton says.
“The African Court of Justice ruling on the Ogiek applies to other indigenous peoples like the Sengwer. As a primary duty bearer, the State has the primary obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of all indigenous people. That includes the Sengwer,” says Defenders Coalition Kenya Executive Director Kamau Ngugi.
Sengwer Council of Elders
Amnesty International Kenya
Defenders Coalition Kenya