By Chris Lang
The Sengwer Indigenous People live in the Embobut Forest in the western highlalnds of Kenya. For years they have faced threats and violent evictions. The Kenya Forest Service has carried out a series of evictions of the Sengwer, supposedly in the name of conservation. In January 2018 Kenya Forest Service guards shot and killed Robert Kirotich, an unarmed Sengwer man who was herding cattle in the Embobut Forest.
In March 2013, representatives of the Sengwer community filed a legal case seeking the degazettement of Embobut Forest.
In February 2020, the lawyer representing the Sengwer told the Environment and Land Court in Eldoret that the community was illegally evicted from the forest in 2013. Dudley Ochiel, a lawyer with the Katiba Institute told the court that,
“The Sengwer community had demonstrated that it is best placed to conserve the forest which is their ancestral land. The community has developed its conservation by-laws to prove that it will conserve the forest.”
The Kenya Forest Service argued that Embobut was gazetted as State Forest in 1954 and declared a Central Forest in 1964. According to the Kenya Forest Service, the land is therefore legally protected from human settlement.
The Sengwer filed another petition in 2018, arguing that they had suffered violent attacks, including the burning of houses and destruction of property at the hands of Kenya Forest Service guards.
Court upholds fortress conservation
On 13 May 2020, the Environment and Lands Court dismissed the suit by the Sengwer. Justice Stephen Kibunja ruled that,
“The proclamation and subsequent gazettement of Embobut Forest as a forest reserve and thereafter as a central forest protected by the State has not been disputed. The forest having been proclaimed a forest reserve and gazetted as a central forest in 1964, then it forms part of public land as defined by the Constitution.
“The court finds that the petitioners in both petitions have not tendered any evidence to show or suggest that the said land had been legally and procedurally degazetted as a protected forest or procedurally and legally alienated to them as the Sengwer community.”
The Kenyan newspaper The Standard reports that the Sengwer community “have vowed to continue with their quest”.
Apart from the obvious fact that this is the Sengwer’s home, there is an overwhelming body of evidence that shows that the best way of preserving the Embobut Forest would be to allow the Sengwer to live there and manage it.
Sengwer activist Elias Kimaiyo told Martin Crook a researcher at the University of London, “Sengwer and the Forests are one and inseparable.”
Kenya’s 2010 Constitution states that lands traditionally occupied by hunter gatherer communities are community property (Art. 63 (2) (d) (ii)). Kenya’s 2016 Community Land Act was written “to provide for the recognition, protection and registration of community land rights”.
The Kenya Forest Service is continuing a model of fortress conservation that has seen as many as 1,000 Sengwer homes burned down.
For the Sengwer, this is their home
As Forest Peoples Programme points out,
For the Sengwer, this is their home. Their very attachment to their lands here in Embobut forest and glades is why they remain, despite all the harassment and burning of their homes by Kenya Forest Service (KFS) over many years. Should that harassment be successful, it will leave their lands at the mercy of those who have no long-term care or commitment to their ancestral lands, and leave the Sengwer themselves destitute and deprived of their human rights.
Justin Kenrick, a senior policy advisor at Forest Peoples Programme, sums up the best way forward – a way that the Kenya Forest Service and its funders (which include the World Bank) have so far ignored:
Conservation science is clear that securing the collective land rights of such indigenous forest communities, communities who have cared for their lands for centuries, is the surest way of securing such forests and the flow of water from them to Kenya.
PHOTO Credit: Peter Ochieng, Standard.