The Sengwer indigenous people who live in the Embobut forest in the western highlands of Kenya continue to face threats of violence and evictions. The latest round of violent evictions started at the end of December 2017. The evictions, carried out by the Kenya Forest Service, are supposedly in the name of “conservation”.
On 16 January 2018, Kenya Forest Service officers shot and killed Robert Kirotich Kibor and seriously injured David Kipkosgei Kiptikesi. The Sengwer men were herding their cattle at the time. Both were unarmed.
The following day, the EU suspended funding to its Water Towers Protection and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Programme.
On 22 January 2018, a court in Eldoret issued an injunction requiring the government to stop the evictions until the Sengwer community’s case is heard on 27 February 2018.
Violence and threats continue
Despite the injunction, Amnesty International reports that on 5 February 2018 more than 30 armed Kenya Forest Service guards burned houses and destroyed cattle pens in the Embobut forest.
Embobut is one of the administrative wards for the Marakwet East Constituency. In January 2018, Stephen Sangolo, Marakwet East deputy commissioner, threatened to continue the evictions. He told The Star,
“Security officers will continue smoking out anyone who is in the forest illegally. We will ensure that we get rid of illegal loggers, land speculators and cattle rustlers.”
Kenya’s then-Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources, Judi Wakhungu[*], toldReuters that,
“There are criminal elements in the forest which must be flushed out.
“The security operation has been designed to return the situation to normal, which is what is likely to happen soon.”
The Embobut forest is the Sengwer’s home. Amnesty International notes that, “They are asking for the government to recognise their land rights in Embobut and to work with them to develop a conservation protocol for the forest.”
“False narrative”, according to the East African Wildlife Society
In an article in the Kenyan media, Julius Kamau, the executive director of the East African Wildlife Society, describes as a “false narrative” accusations of human rights abuses carried out by the Kenya Forest Service. He writes that,
This false narrative has been sustained for so long by the Activists and their funding agencies to an extent that many International organisation has taken the narrative as the ‘truth’ without necessarily seeking to objectively assess the true position on the ground.
Of course, Kamau does not mention that Kenya Forest Service guards shot and killed Kirotich. Instead he argues that between 2009 and 2013 the government financially compensated the Sengwer. Therefore, “no one has a legitimate right to reside in Embobut”, he writes.
But as Amnesty International points out the forced evictions are in breach of the Sengwer’s human rights. Under international law, African Union human rights standards, and Kenya’s constitution, the Sengwer have a right to housing and to their ancestral lands.
At the end of January 2018, Elias Kimaiyo Kibiwot, a member of the Sengwer community, was named Human Rights Defender of the year at a ceremony in Nairobi. On his way back to Embobut, Kimaiyo received a phone call from his wife. She told him him that Kenya Forest Service guards had opened fire near his home.
Kimaiyo told Dutch journalist Koert Lindijer that,
“I cannot go home anymore. I will go underground and turn my phone off. The secret service is looking for me and wants to eliminate me. I live in a kind of war situation.”
In an Urgent Action Alert, Amnesty International is asking people to write to the director of the Kenya Forest Service, Emilio N. Mugo, and Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources, Judi Wakhungu[*], urging the Kenyan authorities to:
- Take immediate steps to ensure that Sengwer leaders and human rights defenders are not harassed, threatened and intimidated for exercising their human rights;
- Stop the forced evictions of the Sengwer community, and ensure they are allowed to return to their ancestral land in Embobut Forest;
- Ensure that an immediate, independent and thorough investigation takes place into the forced evictions and violence in Embobut forest, in particular the killing of Robert Kirotich, and ensure that those responsible for excessive use of force, including murder, are held accountable in line with due process requirements;
- Engage with the Sengwer community on a new approach to conservation in Embobut forest which recognises their role as co-managers, co-conservators and owners of the land.