By Chris Lang
For many years, the Sengwer Indigenous People have been struggling for the right to remain living in their ancestral land in Embobut forest in Kenya. They have faced a series of violent evictions at the hands of the Kenya Forest Service – supposedly in the name of conservation.
The photograph above shows Kenya Forest Service guards burning down Sengwer houses in Embobut forest in July 2020. The photograph was taken by Elias Kimaiyo, who was violently attacked in April 2017 while taking photographs of Kenya Forest Service guards burning 29 Sengwer homes.
Kimaiyo told Amnesty International that
“The guards started shooting at me. I ran, but tripped and fell, breaking my kneecap, and they caught up with me. They hit me with the butt of a rifle, and broke my arm. They took two cameras and an iPad from me.”
The Sengwer recently wrote a letter to conservation donors urging them “to stop funding conservation projects that are stealing our land and destroying our life”.
Survival International notes that this appeal is echoed by other Indigenous People in East Africa:
The Frankfurt Zoological Society, The Nature Conservancy and other big conservation organizations, as well as the EU, and the German, French and US governments, are major funders of conservation programs that involve the creation and support of Protected Areas on the ancestral lands of Indigenous Peoples, who are then evicted and abused.
Survival International lists four groups of Indigenous Peoples that are currently denouncing the impacts of fortress conservation:
- The Borana (Kenya): A Borana man told Survival: “I’m asking the world, the whole world who are donating money to Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), kindly as humans, don’t bother about my color, don’t mind about my religion, but as a human being, we are tortured, we are colonized the second time, we are dying… we ask you to stop these donations to NRT. If you are human, if you are really human, please stop this.”
- The Maasai (Tanzania): A Maasai elder says: “Your money is poison to us.” “Conservation is always bad. In Maasai culture we need an open area for cattle. But since conservation started they push us into small areas and that made a number of cattle die.” “Out of all the enemies in the world, FZS is the number one enemy of the Maasai. Because it is responsible for all Maasai evictions since we left Serengeti. They came with their ideas and their money. In Ngorongoro too, and now in this 1500km2 of land (Loliondo). Since I left Serengeti, I lost many important things. I lost Serengeti. The plains, such a good land for grazing. I loved it”.
- The Enderois (Kenya): A man who was evicted in 1973 for conservation said: “The life before was good. We had a lot of animals and our life was not restricted. Then the government came and said this has to be a conservation area and we experienced inhumanity. We were forced to go by the police and we didn’t know where to go. We were told that the role of the government was looking after wildlife and not after humans. But we were not killing the animals, we were conserving them.”
- The Ogiek (Kenya): “The government said that by evicting the communities it’s a way to restore the forest. But if the forest was left to the Ogiek, it wouldn’t be destroyed. The forest is where we belong, where there are a lot of things on which we depend.”
“If we want to save biodiversity we must respect Indigenous land rights, and fight against this colonial and racist model of conservation. As world leaders are pushing to turn 30% of the Earth into Protected Areas at the next CBD meeting in December, now is the time to let them know that this proposal is a catastrophe for tribes, for nature and for all humanity.”
Here is the letter from the Indigenous Sengwer in Kenya:
Dear Western donors of conservation in Kenya:
We, the Sengwer, Indigenous people from Embobut forest, are writing to you from our ancestral land. This is our forest, our livelihood, our medicine, the land where our ancestors are buried and that we have been protecting for generations.
This forest wouldn’t exist without us. We are the owners and custodians of this forest.
We are writing to you today to urge you to stop funding conservation projects that are stealing our land and destroying our life. The money you are giving is not being used to protect nature but to fund human rights violations. As evidence of this, when the EU suspended and then cancelled its funding for the Water Towers Protection and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Programme on Sengwer land, evictions significantly went down.
If you want to do conservation, the first thing you must do is to secure land tenure for us, the Sengwer, and other Indigenous Peoples. Without our rights respected there can’t be any forest left. Our way of life depends on the forest, we have the knowledge to take care of it, we don’t exploit it but use it sustainably. Our traditional way of life is conservation. We co-exist with nature and make this forest rich. We are the ones who should be in the forefront of any conservation project, not the Kenyan government.
This model of nature protection that you fund comes from colonial times and will lead to genocide. There is no way we will leave this forest. We will not surrender an inch of this land. If the Kenyan government wants to kill us, it’s better they kill us on our land. But be aware that without us the forest will be killed too.
We urge you to stop funding violations of Indigenous ways of life, which are sustainable and respectful of the environment. Instead, work with us to protect our forest, by protecting our rights. And this not only for us, the Sengwer, but for all communities in Kenya and also in the rest of the world.
The Sengwer people from Embobut forest
PHOTO Credit: Kenya Forest Service guards burning Sengwer houses in Embobut forest, 10 July 2020. © Elias Kimaiyo.