Kenya: Sengwer evictions from Embobut Forest flawed and illegal

The Sengwer Indigenous people of Embobut Forest, Kenya are being forced from their homes and dispossessed of their ancestral lands by the grossly flawed, illegal and violent actions of the Kenyan government, Amnesty International said in a new report launched today.

The report, Families Torn Apart: Forced Evictions of Indigenous People in Embobut Forest, Kenya, looks at the implementation of the government’s 2013 decision to relocate and resettle all residents of Embobut Forest in order to reduce deforestation.

The Sengwer people were never genuinely consulted nor was their free and informed consent ever obtained prior to their eviction. This is a flagrant violation of Kenyan and international law.
Irungu Houghton, Amnesty International Kenya's Executive Director

“The Sengwer people were never genuinely consulted nor was their free and informed consent ever obtained prior to their eviction. This is a flagrant violation of Kenyan and international law,” said Amnesty International Kenya’s Executive Director, Irungu Houghton.

The report reveals that widespread, sometimes deadly force, has been used against the Sengwer people, and highlights significant flaws in the decision making process that has been used to justify the forced evictions.

Last month, a government task force on conserving forests by ejecting forest communities concluded that the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) colluded in extensive illegal logging and destruction of the Embobut Forest, for which the Sengwer are being blamed, and persecuted. Despite this finding, the task force recommended the continued indiscriminate eviction of communities living in endangered forests, including the Sengwer in Embobut.

The situation has torn many Sengwer families apart, as one parent often remains in the forest to safeguard their ancestral heritage, while the other lives with the children, often in deplorable conditions, outside the forest for safety.

In fact, conservation research provides evidence that securing the tenure rights of forest inhabitants can increase forest cover and species diversity, reduce deforestation and degradation, especially if the forest communities are ‘traditional’, or if they have a long term relationship with their natural resources from which they derive some of their livelihood options, as do the Sengwer.

Amnesty International also found that those Sengwer still living in the forest are being forced to reside in sub-standard, makeshift housing, because their homes are constantly being burnt down.

The situation has torn many Sengwer families apart, as one parent often remains in the forest to safeguard their ancestral heritage, while the other lives with the children, often in deplorable conditions, outside the forest for safety. More than 50 Sengwer women we interviewed told us their husbands had left them altogether because of the indignity of being unable to provide for their families following their expulsion from their homes.

More than 50 Sengwer women we interviewed told us their husbands had left them altogether because of the indignity of being unable to provide for their families following their expulsion from their homes.

“The situation is urgent as people are still at risk of being forcibly evicted from their homes. The government must immediately cease all evictions and those who have been evicted must be allowed to return to their homes to dwell in safety and dignity, and participate in reforestation,” said Irungu Houghton. 

Amnesty International is also calling on the European Union (EU) and other donors, who are heavily invested in conservation and climate change projects, to ensure that projects they fund do not contribute to human rights violations, and that the free, prior and informed consent of affected Indigenous peoples is obtained. Ongoing projects should be reviewed to ensure that there are no human rights violations.

On 17 January, 2018, the EU suspended funding for the Kenya Water Towers Protection and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Programme following the use of lethal force resulting in the death of one Sengwer man, during the most recent episode of forceful evictions from Embobut Forest.

Development is vital for Kenya, but it must not carry a human cost.
Irungu Houghton, Amnesty International Kenya's Executive Director

“Development is vital for Kenya, but it must not carry a human cost. All donors funding projects in Embobut Forest, including the EU, must ensure that conservation and climate change projects do not cause, or contribute to, human rights violations,” said Irungu Houghton.

Background

The Sengwer are an Indigenous People, who have a cultural and spiritual attachment to Embobut Forest. The right of the Sengwer to their land is protected by the Constitution of Kenya, which defines “ancestral lands and lands traditionally occupied by hunter-gatherer communities” as community lands. This right is also protected by international human rights law.

Embobut forest lies in Elgeyo Marakwet County, in the North Rift Valley, and covers about 22,000 hectares. It was registered as a protected public forest in 1954, and is part of the Cherangany Hills complex, a water catchment area for large parts of Kenya.

Since 2009, efforts to evict the Sengwer from Embobut Forest have seen them subjected to violence by the Kenya Forest Service (KFS). In January 2014, despite a court injunction prohibiting eviction, forestry guards and police moved into the forest and burnt up to 1,500 homes. On 16 January 2018, one man was shot dead and another seriously injured during a forced eviction by armed KFS guards. Since 29 December 2017 more than 300 houses have been burnt to the ground.