The indigenous Sengwer community have lived in the Embobut forest in Kenya for generations. They live in small wooden houses and keep cows, goats, and sheep for meat and milk. They collect honey.
But for many years Kenya Forest Service guards have evicted the Sengwer from their homes in the forest. The evictions are often violent. Forest guards burn down homes, destroy property, and hit the Sengwer. Some Sengwer have been imprisoned.
Since 2013, the evictions have intensified.
Journalist Tim McDonnell visited the Embobut forest in November 2016 and reported on the current situation in The Huffington Post.
On 1 December 2016, the Kenya Forest Service announced that it would evict all the Sengwer before the end of the year. Forest guards burned a dozen homes. On 8 December 2016, a court order stopped further evictions. The court order states:
No person in occupation of the forest to be evicted, however no new settlement to be allowed in the forest.
Many Sengwer now live in temporary huts or in caves. David Kibor has been living in a cave for the last three years, since Kenya Forest Service guards burned his house in the grassland.
McDonnell produced a short video of David Yator Kiptum, Executive Director, Sengwer Indigenous Peoples Programme, speaking about life for the Sengwer in the Embobut forest:
Here’s a transcript of Kiptum speaking to McDonnell:
This is their ancestral home. Their parents, their ancestors have been buried here. And we are not getting out of this place.
The situation of the Sengwer community is that of life and death. And in recent times, we have suffered evictions, where members of the Sengwer community have had their homes, their houses, burned down in the name of conservation.
This was burned last week. So this place has been burned twice. So there was another one, it was burned, then this one put again, it was burned. And now they have put up now, that’s a new one.
A family has been forced to live here when his house was burned down from the open grassland, where they have been living and forced to come and hide here, in a cave.
So, with them you find that generally our identity, our dignity as human beings, as a tribe, is at risk.
The effective, and efficient, and sustainable conservation of these forest areas is dependent on the recognition and protection of the rights of the forest indigenous community.
Evicting members of the Sengwer community from our ancestral home is not a solution to conservation. Neither is it a solution to climate change.
And we hope that eventually, our rights will be recognised, to live and to own our ancestral homes, our community land in Embobut forest. So we are optimistic that one day our voice will be heard.
The Sengwer are taking the question of who owns Embobut to the courts. Kenya’s 2010 Constitution states that lands traditionally occupied by hunter gatherer communities are community property (Art. 63 (2) (d) (ii)). Kenya’s 2016 Community Land Act was written “to provide for the recognition, protection and registration of community land rights”.
The Katiba Institute is a Kenyan legal NGO that aims to use Kenya’s new constitution to achieve social transformation. The Katiba Institute is working with the Sengwer Indigenous Peoples Programme on a legal challenge to get recognition of the Sengwer’s land rights through the Community Land Act.
Land rights lawyer Liz Alden-Wily is helping with the legal challenge. She told McDonnell that,
“There is hardened opposition to the obvious solution, which is that indigenous peoples should be made conservators and strictly bound to that duty. The tenure fate of these areas is directly linked to social justice, peace, and how climate change is mitigated.”