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Indigenous rights clash with forest protection in Kenya

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 17 Jan 2014 12:38 GMT
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A group of women forest dwellers leaves the Embobut forest in western Kenya, fearing forceful eviction, January 2014. TRF/Caleb Kemboi
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ELGEIYO MARAKWET, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For decades, the Kenyan government has attempted to evict indigenous people from the forests of Embobut and Cherangany, in the western county of Elgeiyo Marakwet. Past tactics have even included torture and setting fire to homes, those affected say.

 “I was tortured half dead during the 1988 forced eviction by the government using army troops,” sobbed forest dweller Kiptoo Kamatun. “They burned everything I had - I had to seek refuge for about six months outside the forest.”

The government - accused in recent weeks of preparing to carry out yet another forced eviction - maintains that communities living in 12 forest glades must leave so it can rehabilitate the degraded forest and the water services it provides to the surrounding regions and beyond.

“This is a government initiative aimed specifically at conserving the country’s second-largest water tower - nothing else,’’ said Inspector Stephen Chessa, who works for the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and is in charge of the Embobut eviction.

Back in 1935, colonial power Britain issued permits for some people to live and graze animals in the forest glades. At the same time, it marked out boundaries and banned others from encroaching on the forest land.

According to KFS reports, evictions of forest dwellers from Embobut have been conducted more than 20 times by past governments, but have not been successful.

Most inhabitants whose families were issued with permits claim they have not been spared in these evictions, nor have they received compensation this time around, as recommended by a government task force.

“My grandfather was given a permit by the colonial regime to inhabit the forest, yet our names are missing from the list to be compensated,” said one forest dweller who declined to be named. “We will resist the government move until our plight is addressed.”

FEARS OF FORCE

Others like Bernard Kangogo have decided to seek refuge elsewhere out of fear of being evicted by the police. “We heard forest warders have built tents at the periphery of the forest - we don’t want to be tortured,” he said, while on the move. “I don’t know where I am heading, (but) I don’t want to experience again what happened to me in 1988.”

Chessa dismissed reports that police troops and forest warders plan to evict people using force.

“The presence of forest warders is to ensure the squatters are coming out of the forest calmly, and that their possessions are taken good care of, to avoid them being damaged or stolen by idlers,” he said.

But one forest warder who preferred to remain anonymous told Thomson Reuters Foundation he and his colleagues had been instructed to evict forcefully anyone who resists the move.

On Monday, the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, expressed deep concern about this prospect, urging the Kenyan government “to ensure that the human rights of the Sengwer indigenous people are fully respected, in strict compliance with international standards protecting the rights of indigenous peoples”.

Most families are asking for more time to assemble their things and harvest crops before leaving the forest. “The time given by the government is not enough,” said Michael Losokol. “I have not yet harvested my crops, and the infrastructure is poor - we can only use donkeys to transport our possessions.”

But Solomon Mibei, head of conservation for the KFS, said families would not be given extra time and the evictions would continue as planned. “They have no reason to continue staying in the forest - they were compensated,’’ he said.

DIFFERENT GROUPS

The situation is complex because there are different communities living in Embobut: the Sengwer indigenous people; groups displaced by disasters and political violence; and others who have come to benefit from cultivation opportunities. 

“Why should the government treat us equally with the victims of post-election violence and landslides?’’ asked Sengwer spokesperson Yator Kiptum. “The forest is our home - our case is different, it’s not fair at all.”

Kiptum said the Sengwer are not “squatters”, as dubbed by the government, but have rights to their ancestral lands enshrined in the Kenyan constitution and international law.

According to Article 63 of the constitution, community land shall be vested in and held by communities identified on the basis of ethnicity, culture or similar community of interest.  Community land consists of ancestral lands and lands traditionally occupied by hunter-gatherers.

Justin Kenrick of the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), a UK-based rights organisation, said the government’s justification for evicting people is forest conservation, but research has long since shown that forests are best preserved not by evicting ancestral communities but by supporting them to regain secure rights to their land.

Payments to evictees by the government are “intended to distract the public and the communities themselves from addressing the real issues”, Kenrick said. “According to international treaties to which Kenya is a party, the Sengwer should have been consulted, and accepted or rejected the proposal,’’ he added.

Kiptum, however, claims the Sengwer were not consulted, did not sign anything, and have not agreed to hand over their land for the small amount of money that has been paid into some people's bank accounts.

The government set up a task force in 2009 to make recommendations on lasting solutions to restore, conserve and protect the Embobut forest.

It recognised different categories of people living there, and decided that compensation of 400,000 Kenyan shillings ($4,700) each should be paid to 3,000 families of indigenous forest dwellers, permit holders and landslide victims.

But local people say those who were put on the list eligible for compensation were mainly cronies of politicians and task-force members’ relatives. “Our names were missing from the original list, so we felt short-changed,” said Jeremiah Mumol, an exhausted member of the Sengwer community.

CONSERVATION CRISIS

The Kenyan government maintains that evicting the communities from the forest has become more urgent because of climate change.

Climate patterns have really changed,” said KFS’s Mibei. “We have an enormous plan to bring back the biodiversity of the forest to the way it was.”

The KFS has already set up stations in different glades to spearhead the conservation process. “We are in the course of rehabilitating the entire forest as soon as we can - we already have 20 million seedlings in the nursery beds all set for planting,” said Inspector Chessa. “We are not going to accept the destruction of the forest in the name of ancestral land.”

But rights activists argue the government is going about solving the problem in the wrong way.

“You cannot create a humanitarian crisis for the sake of conserving biodiversity while there are other ways of doing it better,” said Stephen Cheboi, coordinator of the North Rift Human Rights Network based in nearby Eldoret town. He also called for an audit of the compensation process.

FPP’s Kenrick said that constitutionally, the matter must be settled by the National Land Commission through its mandate to address historical land injustices. “The Sengwer are asking the High Court to pass their case on to the commission to do exactly this,’’ he explained.

Caleb Kemboi is an environmental and climate change reporter based in Eldoret, in Kenya’s Rift Valley. He can be reached at ckemboi08@gmail.com

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