Sengwer "hiding in the forest" amid pressure on Kenya to halt evictions

by Kevin Mwanza | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 24 January 2018 19:11 GMT

People from the Sengwer community protest over their eviction from their ancestral lands, Embobut Forest, by the government for forest conservation in western Kenya, April 19, 2016. REUTERS/Katy Migiro

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"The assault, burning and destruction of their properties is a violation or threat of violation to their right to life."

By Kevin Mwanza

NAIROBI, Jan 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kenya came under pressure on Wednesday to halt security operations in a forest where a man was killed last week, as activists called on Finland follow the European Union in suspending aid they said was fuelling the land conflict.

A court in the western town of Eldoret on Monday ordered forest guards and the police to stop evicting the Sengwer from Embobut forest, which they claim as their ancestral land, until Feb. 27 when it will hear their case.

More than 100 armed Kenya Forest Service (KFS) guards entered the forest on Dec. 25, firing gunshots, burning homes and killing livestock, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said.

"Most of the members of the Sengwer community are hiding in the forest, staying in caves and other highly vulnerable places exposed to the dangers of wild animals and vagaries of the weather," 21 Sengwer petitioners said in court documents.

"The assault, burning and destruction of their properties is a violation or threat of violation to their right to life."

Their battle illustrates global tension between indigenous peoples and conservation policies excluding them from protected forests. Land is an explosive political issue in Kenya.

The European Union (EU) shelved a $35 million water conservation scheme in the forest on Jan. 17 after Kenya Forest Service (KFS) guards killed a man belonging to the hunter-gatherer community, which opposes the aid project.

The EU and Amnesty International will visit the forest on Thursday, activists said.

The Sengwer petition, seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, said they went to court after hearing local media report on Jan. 19 that "the government would undertake air and ground operation to evict all persons in Embobut Forest".

Police and county officials were not immediately available to comment. Environment minister, Judi Wakhungu, said last week that security forces were flushing criminals out of the forest.

Almost a dozen international rights groups called on Finland on Wednesday to suspend a 9.5 million euro ($12 million) project, working with KFS to support the forestry sector.

"This is funding the ongoing human rights abuses by KFS that involve the burning of homes, forced evictions, and now their killing of a Sengwer community member," the groups, including the UK-based Forest Peoples Programme, said in an open letter.

The Sengwer have fought for more than five decades for the right to live in the Embobut forest in the Cherengany Hills, from where they were first evicted by British colonialists in the 19th century.

"It's our call to the Finnish government to suspend this project just like the EU," Sengwer activist Yator Kiptum said on Wednesday. "KFS just continued burning homes today."

Dedan Ndiritu, KFS's head of conservancy in the region, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone on Wednesday, that the situation in Embobut forest was "normal" and "not much is happening there". ($1 = 0.8070 euros) (Reporting by Kevin Mwanza, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)

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