ARTICLE | 28 APRIL 2014 – 11:00AM | BY ANTHONY LANGAT
Allegedly in contravention of Kenyan law, thousands of Sengwer have been forcibly removed from their ancestral homeland in the Embobut forest.
Embobut Forest, Kenya:
Since Ogla Arengwony was evicted from Embobut Forest in western Kenya a few months ago, the 32-year-old mother of three has been living with her family in a small hut on the outskirts of her ancestral homeland. The crops she had been growing had to be abandoned, her livestock left behind, and her life uprooted. And she was not the only one. Along the road where she now lives, there stand several more makeshift houses into which other evicted families cram to spend the night and to shelter from the rain.
This time last year, this community lived in the forest like their parents and countless generations of Sengwer people had for centuries before them. But from this December, the Kenyan government began forcefully removing them, destroying their possession and burning their homes. “The forest service officers even destroyed the fences in our farms, and the livestock destroyed our crops,” says Arengwony.
Evicted from her home and her three-acre farm, Arengwony now only has a few kilos of maize left from her last harvest to feed her family. She tries to go into the forest every day to milk and feed her now untended cattle, sneaking past forest officers who she says harass people they find, but she knows the supplies she has will not last much longer. “I don’t know what I will give my family as food once the maize I have runs out,” she says tearfully.
Food is not the only thing in short supply. Stephen Suter Kaino, a 52-year-old father of four, was Arengwony’s neighbour in Embobut. They still live close by, but now along the edge of the forest in small huts which they built after being evicted and which they share with several other families. “Six women sleep in one hut while all our children live in another hut,” explains Kaino. “It is not easy.”
Furthermore, many Sengwer fear that they could be evicted again, without a moment’s notice, and moved further away.
Compensation and consent
The Kenyan government says it needs to remove communities from Embobut Forest because their presence threatens the forest’s biodiversity as well as urban water supplies. The Cherangani Hills on which the woodlands lie constitute one of the country’s most important water catchment areas, which are considered crucial to prevent water shortages.
Previous Kenyan governments attempted to evict the Sengwer forest dwellers, of whom there are an estimated 15,000, and last year President Uhuru Kenyatta began his own campaign to do the same. On 15 November 2013, he travelled to Embobut where he offered Sengwer households $4,600 compensation for moving.
Thomas Chepkonga, a teacher at Maron Primary School on the edge of Embobut forest, says he received the compensation, but believes the figure was insufficient for his five-acre piece of land. “It would have been better had they paid us at least double,” he says.
However, many Sengwer, including Arengwony and Kaino, did not receive any compensation at all, and some claim that the list of beneficiaries was tampered with, introducing outsiders who were awarded compensation while hundreds of real evictees were left out. Nevertheless, on 12 December, the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) issued a 21-day eviction notice, and on 5 January, the Kenyan police and KFS moved in to force the Sengwer from the forest.
The evictees fled with what they could as armed men moved through the forest, and have struggled to survive, living in squalid conditions in small reed-thatched and mud-walled huts on the edge of the forest, ever since.
Soon after the evictions began, UN Special Rapporteur on Rights of Indigenous Peoples urged the Kenyan government to halt the process, and the Sengwer appealed to the High Court in Eldoret, claiming: “The inhuman, forceful violations led to cases of school drop-outs, psychological torture, lose of medicinal plants and desecration of cultural and spiritual sites contributing negatively to the cultural and religious developments of the community.”
In a press release, the KFS defended its actions stating that: “The exercise was necessary in order to pave way for the Government to restore the Cherangani forests, a major national water tower serving more than 2 million Kenyans through the Nzoia and Turkwel rivers.”
Nevertheless, the court sided with the Sengwer and issued an injunction barring the government against further removals. The court argued that it was unconstitutional to remove the Sengwer without consent from their ancestral lands under Article 63 (d), which recognises the rights of ancestral owned land and land traditionally occupied by hunter-gatherer communities.
The Kenya Forest Service, however, continued their evictions and continue to prevent people from returning to the forest even though most of their livestock remained there. Earlier this month, for example, the KFS reportedly arrested 15 people who had snuck back into the forest and are using helicopters to guard the area.
A few months on from the evictions, many Sengwer are still in limbo, living on the edge of their ancestral homeland. Some fear they could be evicted again while others are holding out hope that international pressure and the Eldoret high court will force the government to allow them to return to their homes.