13 Jan 2018 - 13:15
Displaced by conservation push, Kenyan tribe cries foul
By Magdalene Mukami and Andrew Wasike | Anadolu
NAIROBI, Kenya: On Christmas Day, when many families were celebrating the holidays, locals living in a forest in eastern Kenya got a sudden, and decidedly nonfestive awakening.
Under cover of the holiday season, armed Kenya Forest Service officers went door to door evicting residents, arresting those who resisted, and then setting fire to their homes.
The officers shot live bullets into the air to scare people away, leaving men, women, and children exposed to the elements, out in the rain and bitter cold.
It was a shock to the system for the Sengwer, a group of hunters and gatherers who depend solely on the Embobut forest for sustenance. One of the last forest-dwelling communities in the East African country, the Sengwer are believed to number around 33,000, according to Kenya's 2009 census.
Deep inside the teak-brown forest, Milka Chepkoech, a Sengwer, is milking her cow, fresh from picking fruits, stinging nettles, and berries in the forest. The sound of milk hitting a plastic pail fills the air, interrupting the serene atmosphere of creaking trees and crackling leaves.
Chepkoech is sad, as after her house was burned to the ground that violent, fateful morning, she was forced to fashion a makeshift house out of twigs.
She walks along a moss-veiled trail, carpeted with fallen tree leaves, pointing to a pile of ashes, a desolate marker of what used to be her home.
Kenyan authorities say that the forced eviction is paving the way for conservation of one of Kenya's water towers -- not a water container, but the local term for sources of mass water used for human consumption. Kenya has five water towers which provide 75 percent of its renewable water resources.
The European Union has played a major role in this water source conservation, through a six-year, €31 million project. Along with forest and watershed protection, the project’s money will go to tree planting and conserving the forest, especially from illegal logging, according to the EU.
Launching the program last June, EU Ambassador to Kenya Stefano A. Dejak said: "The Water Towers Program will help preserve the environment for present as well as future Kenyan generations, while improving the lives of the communities through ecologically and economically sustainable land use systems and livelihood interventions. This provides a win-win solution for both the community and the environment."
Judi Wakhungu, Kenya’s minister for the environment and natural resources, also touted the program, saying it would “improve the quality and quantity of ecosystem services provided by the two water towers, through increased forest cover, improved landscape and natural resource management/waste management systems, that will lead to increased benefits to communities from forest, agriculture and agro-forestry land use systems."
But it is just this benign-seeming project, say the Sengwer people, that is being used to terrorize them.
"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," said a Jan. 4 statement released by the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders Kenya at a press conference in capital Nairobi.
Chepkoech said that due to the forced evictions, "People are getting sick due to the cold, and they can’t get treatment.
"Our hospital is the forest they're evicting us from, for whenever anyone gets sick we get medicinal roots and leaves which we use to treat them."
She added: "They are chasing us from our ancestral land, land where we buried our loved ones and have always cared for.
"We preserve the forest and don’t even cultivate it. We’re not going anywhere, I’ll be killed first before I leave."
Like Chepkoech, local resident Martin Kipngetich says that his life has become miserable.
"They burned all the food I had saved, including my personal belongings like schoolbooks and clothes.
"I own nothing, but I won't leave the land where my grandfathers walked. The money from the EU should’ve been used to help us better conserve the forest, not harass and evict us.”
-Democracy and conservation
The Sengwer allege that over 900 homes have been burned by Kenya Forest Service officers since last April, and despite an order from the Land and Environment Court halting the evictions, the harassment is still ongoing. Efforts to reach forest service officials for comment went unanswered.
The Sengwer reject rumors that they have been involved in illegal logging, pointing to a visit by an EU team that found that they are in fact hunters and gatherers and also raise animals.
They say they do not want to be relocated or compensated, but just want to stay on their ancestral land.
The Sengwer have urged the EU to suspend all funding to the agencies charged with implementing the program, including the Kenya Forest Service.
When contacted, the EU office said they were aware of the situation but declined to comment further.
Liz Alden Wily, an independent land tenure and governance specialist, told Anadolu Agency: "The new Constitution of Kenya guarantees the traditional hunter-gatherer society rights to their ancestral lands.
"It is well time for the Kenyan government to democratize its approaches to conservation, to rethink how can we really secure conservation of these precious areas. Unfortunately, this is an aspect of development strategy in Kenya that is I am sorry to say appears at least from an international point of view to be very outdated.”