By Chris Lang
In January 2018, the European Union suspended funding to its Water Towers Protection and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Programme in Kenya. The EU announced the suspension of the US$35 million project the day after a Kenya Forest Service guard shot and killed Robert Kirotich, an Indigenous Sengwer man, during a raid in Embobut Forest, home of the Sengwer Indigenous People.
In June 2020, the EU stated that it would cancel the funding for the project if the government does not resolve the land rights dispute with the Sengwer. Stefano Dejak, the former EU Ambassador to Kenya, said, “By September 20th the duration will expire and the funds will be returned to the EU to cater for other programmes including helping member countries combat the covid 19 pandemic.”
Evictions continue during pandemic
Since then, evictions have continued. In July 2020, Kenya Forest Service guards burned down 28 Sengwer homes. Also in July 2020, Kenya Forest Service guards evicted 300 Indigenous Ogiek families from their homes in the Mau Forest.
Community Land Action Now is a network of community groups including Indigenous Peoples, pastoralists, forest dependent communities, and settled communities, who are working together to implement the 2016 Community Land Act.
Community Land Action Now put forward five requests to the government of Kenya in their July 2020 press statement:
- Stop evicting traditional forest peoples, listen to the sacrifices they are uniquely willing and able to make to save their forests for themselves and all Kenyans, and agree a practical and fair path forward with each community;
Honour the protection due to still-untitled community lands throughout the country by ceasing to ‘grab’ and turn our woodlands and forests into Public Forests; invest instead in helping us declare and manage these as Protected Community Forests on our own community lands;
- Respond in the spirit of devolution and fairness to requests to return County Forests and Wildlife Reserves to the customary communities from whom they were taken;
- Recognize that the old strategies of granting access, use rights and benefits is meaningless for as long as our forests are not recognized as our own; and,
- Uphold the rule of law.
Protect the environment and human rights
Yesterday, Community Land Action Now put out a press statement asking the Kenyan government not to force the EU to cancel its project, and to protect both the environment and human rights. The statement was reported on by The Standard and The Star in Kenya.
An appeal to the Government of Kenya from CLAN (Community Land Action Now) “A win-win solution for forests, human rights and the EU WaTER Project exists – please grasp it!”
The European Union and the Government of Kenya are set to make a decision within days whether to lift the suspension on the Water Towers Project or to cancel it altogether. However a win-win solution is on the table, which can protect the forest as well as allow a safe home for forest dwellers.
This is good news for all Kenyans – not just for forest dwellers – because it lays the ground for a secure, strong and enduring partnership between the Government and forest dwellers to protect Kenya’s forests, wildlife and water towers for the benefit of all Kenyans, for always.
CLAN is a network of communities – including forest dwellers, hunter-gatherers and pastoralists – who have joined together to speak with one voice about our communities’ land rights. This includes the right to be the chief conservators of our lands and forests, and to be able at last to look to Government as our technical advisers and allies, not our persecutors.
Our forest communities have had to stand by and watch their forests destroyed in the name of conservation. This has been In the wrong way of conservation – the old, colonial, way – which ignored the very people who can offer most to save a forest because they have most need of protecting it, not just for today, but forever. Without the forest, their culture will die – without these cultures, the forests will die.
We ask the Government to not force the EU to cancel its WaTER project. It is not just the EU that will withdraw its support on witnessing the abuse of human rights through the pursuit of outdated colonial-style conservation strategies – other donors will turn their back on Kenya too if this continues, and other countries will benefit instead.
We urge the Government of Kenya to instead grasp the win-win solution in front of them: to begin a process which allows Kenya’s forest dwellers to live in agreed glades and other such areas like moorlands where trees do not naturally grow. From there they can be on site to perform for our nation as proud protectors of their forests. We ask the Government to join hands with these citizens before it is too late to save those forests. We ask the Government to not turn its back on this modern way of saving forests
We ask for community land title for the Ogiek of Mau. We ask for Kapkok glade to be recognised as community lands for the Sengwer of Embobut. We ask for Chepkitale moorland to be recognised as community lands for the Ogiek of Mt Elgon. Forest dwellers should be allowed to live peacefully and sustainably in agreed areas such as glades, moorlands and other such areas within their ancestral lands where trees do not grow naturally.
Many forest peoples globally are recognized today as owner-custodians of precious forests, because they have more incentive than anyone else to save their historical forestlands. Kenyans should know, for example, that it is almost only the territories of forest peoples in Brazil that are not being turned into ranches and soy bean farms today. These forest custodians fight day and night to stop fires coming into their lands.
Now the Cabinet Secretary to the Ministry of Environment, Keriako Tobiko, is rightly trying to turn the clock back, to clear the forests of settlers and encroachers who were sold the lands of forest people by corrupt officials and politicians. But he needs to do this with, not against, the traditional owners who wait patiently to be able to live safely in their homes, along with agreements as to how they will work hand-in-hand with the Government to protect and rehabilitate their ancestral forests. Without the right to live anywhere in these homelands, they can do little to protect the forest. Conservation is about working with citizens who can best help save those forests – and the time to grasp this opportunity is now.
CLAN is a network of communities – including forest dwellers, hunter-gatherers and pastoralists – who have joined together to speak with one voice about our communities’ land rights.
PHOTO Credit: Mount Elgon, one of Kenya’s water towers. Benjamin Sakwa, The Standard.