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In the name of conservation: Yet more forced evictions of the Sengwer indigenous people in Kenya

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For the past four years, REDD-Monitor has been documenting the evictions of the Sengwer indigenous people from their homes in the Embobut Forest, in Western Kenya. The violent evictions have been carried out by the Kenya Forest Service, supposedly in the name of conservation.

From 2007 to 2013, the World Bank funded the Kenya Forest Service but did nothing to stop the evictions. Neither did the Bank support the rights of the Sengwer, in breach of World Bank safeguards.

The Kenya Forest Service is currently receiving funding from the European Union under its Water Towers Protection and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Programme. Yet the evictions and the intimidation of the Sengwer continue.

On 29 December 2017, the Forest Peoples Programme put out a statement on the threats to the Sengwer. The statement opposes evictions planned over the holiday period.

On the same day, the Kenya Forest Service forcibly evicted members of the Sengwer community from their homes. Further evictions took place on 1 January 2018. Amnesty International’s Chris Chapman reports that the Kenya Forest Service “is using live ammunition to threaten and forcibly evict Indigenous Sengwer from Embobut”.

On 1 January 2018, Amnesty International wrote a letter to Gideon Gathaara, Conservation Secretary at the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources in Nairobi, expressing its concern about the evictions, and calling on the Ministry to stop the evictions.

On 4 January 2018, members of the Sengwer community held a press briefing for journalists in Nairobi. Milka Chepkorir, a Sengwer woman who works to support Sengwer rights, said,

“We have repeatedly experienced forced evictions at the hands of KFS. Its wardens have regularly burned our homes, along with stores of food, blankets, school uniforms, and books. Over the years, they have made thousands of our people homeless in what at night can be a cold highland to have no home.”

Here’s the statement from the Forest Peoples Programme, followed by Amnesty International’s letter.

Statement on threats to the Sengwer Indigenous people of Kenya

Forest Peoples Programme, 29 December 2017

In a remote region of Kenya this week, a government agency — flush with funds from the European Union — is sending armed security guards house to house to frighten Sengwer villagers into fleeing the forests that are rightfully theirs.

This assault began a scant three weeks after EU officials received assurances from government officials that the Kenya Forest Service and its partners had not violated — and would not violate — the human rights of communities living in the region covered by a EU-funded conservation project known as the WaTER Tower Program.

In June 2016, the EU and the Kenyan government launched the Water Towers Protection and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation (WaTER) to support the eradication of poverty through making the ecosystems of Mt Elgon and Cherangany Hills more productive. The EU has committed €31 million to the six-year programme, which will run through 2020.

The project was sold as a win-win for the environment and for local communities, but the Sengwer don’t see it that way.

They have repeatedly experienced forced evictions at the hands of the KFS. Its wardens have regularly burned Sengwer homes, along with stores of food, blankets, school uniforms and books, while rendering thousands of people homeless in what can be a cold, wet region in the uplands of Kenya. For example, in the days following the visit of an EU Human Rights team in March 2017, one Sengwer community member was shot at and badly wounded as he sought to document the evictions and burning of homes.

Despite violating the Sengwer people’s constitutional right (Article 63.2.d.ii) to live in their ancestral lands, lands that are currently Forest Reserves, the evictions continue today.

They take place in the name of conservation and in denial of a growing body of evidence—backed by human rights law—that suggests environmental objectives are best achieved with the recognition of indigenous peoples’ ancestral land rights. Conversely, the research shows that evicting these local “forest guardians” places forests and other natural resources at greater risk of destruction by outside forces.

The Sengwer urge the EU to suspend all funding to the agencies charged with implementing the WaTER Towers project, including the KFS, whose armed guards are in Embobut forest this week to evict the Sengwer from their forest homes.

The apparent goal is to act under cover of the Christmas holiday, at a time when the EU is in recess and the foreign press are on holiday.

The Sengwer call on the EU to make urgent and high level representations to the Ministry of Environment and to the KFS to demand an immediate halt to the evictions of the Sengwer and to ensure the immediate withdrawal of armed personnel from the region.

The Sengwer ask as well that the EU use its role as funder to ensure the Ministry and KFS commit to supporting the efforts of the Sengwer to conserve their ancestral lands, with the support of conservation agencies. This is the most effective approach to conservation, one that begins with the recognition of the rights of the Sengwer people, and not in violation of those rights.

The story of the Sengwer is not unique. Like millions of Indigenous and other rural peoples in Africa, Latin America and Asia, they have become trespassers on their own lands. And the problem is not theirs alone. Failure to secure land rights for rural communities represents a global crisis; it puts at risk lives and livelihoods, as well as the priceless treasures of biodiversity. And it undermines humanity’s ability to confront climate change, poverty, hunger and political instability.

On 26 May 2017, the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights ruled that the Kenyan government violated the rights of the Indigenous Ogiek people–an indigenous people from the forests of the Mau Complex– when it evicted them from their lands.

The Court’s ruling set a precedent, making clear that evicting such peoples not only violates their human rights but leaves their forests vulnerable to destruction by outsiders.

The WaTER project continues to trample on the rights of the very peoples whose presence has provided some protection against the destruction of their indigenous forests by outsiders. It needs to instead strengthen their rights.

The Sengwer are one of the last remaining forest dwelling peoples of Kenya, but their way of life is threatened with extinction. Kenyan and European leaders have the power to stop the destruction of these indigenous forest guardians. But they must act now.

 

Gideon Gathaara
Conservation Secretary
Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources
NHIF Building, 12th Floor
Ragati Road
Upperhill
Nairobi

1 January 2018

Dear Mr Gathaara,

Evictions in Embobut Forest on 29 December 2017 and 1 January 2018

Amnesty International expresses its grave concern at reports that the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) carried out a number of forced evictions of members of the Sengwer community in Embobut forest (Cherengany Hills Complex) on Friday 29 December 2017 and today, 1 January 2018.

The forced evictions were carried out despite a High Court injunction that forbids the eviction or arrest of Sengwer who are resident in the forest, pending the hearing of a challenge to the legality of the January 2014 mass evictions. The forced evictions constitute violations of human rights, including the rights of the Sengwer to housing, and to their ancestral lands, under international law, African Union human rights standards, and the Constitution of Kenya.

According to a number of consistent reports from affected community members, and interviews by national media outlets, KFS guards burnt at least 15 huts, fired shots into the air, and shot dead a number of animals belonging to Sengwer community members. While the KFS had issued an advance warning saying that evictions would happen from 5pm on 29 December, it is reported that the guards moved into the forest and began forcibly evicting Sengwer community members from 10am on that day. The timing of the forced eviction, between Christmas and New Year, meant that the community struggled to mobilise support to contest the action, including through the media, civil society and the judiciary.

Since January 2014, Amnesty International has received reports from the Sengwer and other sources of at least 13 actions to forcibly evict them. We have interviewed over 100 Sengwer community members and found that the evictions which they were victims of did not comply with international human rights standards.

In addition, Amnesty International, despite several requests, has not been granted permission to visit the forest and independently interview members of the Sengwer living there.

Amnesty International calls on the Ministry to:

  • Immediately order the cessation of forced evictions in Embobut forest;
  • Investigate reports of evictions on 29 December and 1 January 2018, and to ensure that necessary action is taken against individuals responsible if there is evidence of criminal responsibility or administrative failings, in compliance with national and international standards of due process;
  • Ensure that all those affected by the forced evictions are allowed to return to their lands and are provided access to remedies including compensation for losses that they might have incurred;
  • Provide a guarantee to the Sengwer that there will be no further evictions, or arrests of Sengwer on the basis of their presence in Embobut, and enter into good faith negotiations with the Sengwer regarding the status of the forest and its management in the interests of conservation.

Yours sincerely,

Ashfaq Khalfan

Director, Law and Policy Programme
Amnesty International
International Secretariat
1 Easton Street
London
WC1X 0DW
United Kingdom

 


PHOTO Credit: Chris Chapman, Amnesty International.

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