By Chris Lang
The European Union has scrapped its US$35 million Water Towers Protection and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Programme in Kenya. The project had been suspended since January 2018, after a Kenya Forest Service guard shot and killed Robert Kirotich, an Indigenous Sengwer man. The shooting took place during a raid in Embobut Forest, the home of the Sengwer Indigenous People.
An article in the Kenyan newspaper the Star includes the following extracts from a statement by the EU, given last week in response to questions from the Star:
“Following the lapsing of a contractual deadline of the EU WaTER project, the Water Towers programme will now be closed.”
“Over the last two and a half years, the EU delegation has worked in cooperation with various stakeholders, including the National and County governments, Kenyan National Commission for Human Rights, the Task Force on the Ogiek and local communities living in the project area to find a solution to the human rights and conservation issues. The efforts in particular of the Environment Ministry led to considerable advances towards the resolution of the contentious issues particularly in the last few months.”
“Three extensions to the deadline had already been granted earlier in a bid to resolve the contending issues. Following EU internal procedures, the contracting deadline of 24th September 2020 cannot be extended further.”
“Forward looking, the European Union is very keen in reengaging with Kenya on environmental protection and climate resilience building under the Green Deal Initiative in the new programming period.”
Evictions have continued in the more than two-and-a-half years since the EU suspended Water Towers project. Evictions have even happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. In recent months, Kenya Forest Service guards have burned down 28 Sengwer homes, and evicted 300 Indigenous Ogiek families from their homes in the Mau Forest:
The Star article about the cancellation of the EU project also includes comments from the Principal Secretary for the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Dr. Chris Kiptoo. He said that the Sengwer are living in “ecologically sensitive areas”, and added that, “we are asking that they be resettled.”
Kiptoo dismisses the rights of the Sengwer to their traditional lands, saying, “We do not operate on whims of EU.”
Kenya has no specific legislation on Indigenous Peoples. The country has not adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, nor has it ratified International Labour Organization Convention 169.
“We are the forest”
Novara Media recently put out a short film about the Sengwer, their traditional lands and livelihoods, and the hardships they face at the hands of the Kenya Forest Service. The film was made in collaboration with the Minority Rights Group:
“The issue is about the land,” one of the Sengwer community says in the film. “You cannot separate a community from the forest. We are the forest and the forest is us. We should be engaged in the conservation of this forest.”
“If evictions continue, our communities will be gone”
The Ogiek Peoples Development Programme and the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs made a joint submission to the Human Rights Council’s 45 Session.
Since 2 July 2020, the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) has evicted more than 1100 Ogiek people from Mariashoni, Logoman, Kiptunga and Nessuit forests located in Eastern Mau (Nakuru County) and from Nkareta in Maasai Mau (Narok County). The evictions have been very violent, more than 300 Ogiek homes have been demolished, farms and crops have been destroyed and livestock left without grazing. This has seriously impoverished the already poor Ogiek people who are now facing food in-security. The evictions have left the affected Ogiek people shocked and traumatized – and children are especially affected.
The evictions are a blatant violation of a 2017 ruling of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights that stated that the Ogiek have the right to live in the Mau Forest. The court also ruled that the government of Kenya was wrong to evict them.
The evictions led to serious inter-ethnic violence between the Ogiek and non-Ogiek communities. Three Ogiek people have been killed, 20 injured, and 10 hospitalised. 16 Ogiek have been arrested. Many have no legal representation, but they are facing serious charges. Local police have threatened Ogiek leaders and human rights defenders. The police blame them for the violence. When Ogiek Senator Victor Prengei called for a community meeting to discuss the situation, the police threatened him with arrest. He remains under investigation.
The Kenya Forest Service is demarcating areas where the evictions took place, aiming to create restricted forest areas where human presence is forbidden. These areas are ancestral Ogiek territories, recognised by the African Court ruling.
In August 2020, Anuradha Mittel of the Oakland Institute spoke to Daniel Kobei of the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Programme. “Exposing communities to a pandemic, like they are doing now through these evictions, spells doom for them,” Kobei says. These are poor communities, which have no access to medical facilities or any health insurance. If this continues, our communities will be gone. They will simply be relegated to history.”
PHOTO Credit: Screenshot from “Under Threat: The Sengwer Minority”, Novara Media and Minority Rights Group.