Kenya is Violently Evicting an Indigenous Tribe in the Name of Water Conservation
The forest-dwelling Sengwers have been repeatedly targeted by the government
Christianity can be tricky in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Sengwers — a forest-dwelling tribe who live in the Embobut forest in the Cherang'any Hills in Kenya’s western highlands — believe in Jesus, but at the same time, they can point you to their holy mountain. This, of course, doesn’t change the fact that the end of the year is a holiday season for them, as is the case for the majority of Christians all around the world.
Last year, however, Sengwers had no time to celebrate Christmas.
According to an inquiry by United Nations human rights experts, on December 25 last year, “more than 100 armed [Kenyan] Forest Service guards entered the traditional lands of the Sengwer in the Embobut Forest, firing gunshots, burning at least 15 homes and killing their livestock.”
Three days after the incident, local authorities accompanied by the forest service officials met with Sengwers in a primary school on the outskirts of Embobut forest. “Kenya Forest Service [KFS] issued a notice for people to move their cows out of the forest immediately, they gave short notice until tomorrow 5 p.m.,” local activist Elias Kimayo reported on Facebook. The impetus for the evictions was a water conservation project financed by the European Union.
Less than a month later, on the afternoon of January 16, forest service officials attacked Sengwer men who were herding cattle in Embobut Forest. They shot and killed one man, Robert Kirotich, and injured another, David Kipkosgei Kiptilkesi.
“The government is trying [any way] possible using EU funds to get us out of our land,” Elias Kimayo told me in an email.
The UN’s independent experts agree. "The Sengwer are facing repeated attacks and forced evictions by agents of the Kenya Forest Service, which is an implementing agency in the project financed by the European Union," they said in a statement released a day after the fatal January attack.
Following the incident, the EU suspended its $38.5 million “water towers” initiative. The six-year project, called the Water Towers Protection and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation, was supposed to “support the eradication of poverty through enhancing the productivity of ecosystem services” provided by two of Kenya’s five high-elevation forests — Mt Elgon and Cherang'any. These forests, where the sources of the country’s major rivers are located, are often referred to as “water towers.”
While inaugurating the project back in 2016, the EU Ambassador to Kenya, Stefano A. Dejak, said: "The Water Towers Program will help preserve the environment for [the] 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.”
Sengwers couldn’t disagree more. For them, new funding meant only a new, bigger wave of harassment.
The Indigenous Sengwer people of Kenya number about 33,000, and some 13,500 of them live in the Embobut Forest where they hunt, gather honey, farm, and rear livestock. They are one of the last remaining forest-dwelling people in the country, and like many indigenous peoples, they have a deep knowledge of the ecology of their forests, which they have maintained for generations.
The struggle between Sengwers and local authorities — now mostly in the form of the KFS, a governmental agency set up in 2005 to protect and monetize forests in Kenya — is nothing new. It dates back to the nineteenth century, when British colonists were evicting them to facilitate the creation of tea plantations. The modern history of evictions started in 1978, but the violence has intensified only in the last decade or so.
In 2014, the forest service forcibly evicted thousands of Sengwer from the forest by burning their homes, leaving many camped out by the roadside, in the name of a World Bank-backed conservation project. According to Sengwer leaders and human-rights groups, authorities have burned more than 1,000 Sengwer homes since that particular conservation program began in 2007.
“They are certainly trying to remove all of them from the forest,” Chris Chapman, Indigenous rights researcher with Amnesty International told me in an email about the December and January actions. “The evictions this time have been ferocious. At least 50 houses [were] burnt.”
When I visited Embobut Forest in January 2015, after the World Bank project-related evictions, the situation was both very different and strikingly similar. Foreign visitors, from the NGO’s and journalists, were still allowed to enter the forest. Since last year though, groups like Amnesty International have been denied access to the area, and researchers and journalists can only meet with Sengwers in nearby villages.
During both visits, locals had lots of stories about hut-burning or confiscation of goods by the KFS.
Photo by Justin Kenrick
Back then too, the local community was blaming the current spate of evictions on foreign funds — the $68.5m loan from the World Bank for the “Kenya: Natural Resource Management Project (NRMP)” that was supposed “to enhance the institutional capacity to manage water and forest resources, reduce the incidence and severity of water shocks, such as drought, floods and water shortage in river catchments and improve the livelihoods of communities in the co-management of water and forest resources”.
“This money was supposed to help us but is used to get rid of us from our ancestral land,” Paul Kibet, head of Sengwer Indigenous Peoples Programme, a local NGO, had told me back in 2015. He said the government bought helicopters and planes with the funds.
Embobut Forest is a major drainage basin in the area. Seven rivers, including Kerio, one of the longest rivers in Kenya, and around two million people depend on it. In Elgeyo-Marakwet County, where the majority of the Embobut Forest is located, 63 percent of the population has no access to the sanitized water and use local springs. Sanitized water is almost nonexistent outside urban areas.
Water conservation is a priority in the country, which is currently facing an unprecedented and acute water shortage. According to George Ruchathi from the African Centre for Technology Studies, the first results of climate change are already visible in Kenya, with more intense drought cycles and altered rainfall patterns.
“Historically Kenya was experiencing a major drought once every ten years, however in the recent past, in [the] 2000s, droughts are being recorded once every three years, Ruchathi says. “The rain patterns have also changed, historically we did not receive rains in January and February which we are now experiencing,” he told me in an email.
The Kenyan administration is arguing that at a time of water scarcity, the Sengwers are putting the existence of the basin in danger by cutting down trees to create open land for grazing and farming.
“If the wanton destruction of trees could have been allowed to continue for another 10 years, all the rivers originating from the forest would dry and we would be staring at an acute shortage of water not only in Marakwet but also in neighboring counties,” Alfred Nyaswabu from the KFS told the local daily, The Star.
Marakwet elder Richard Kipsaya told the same newspaper that “continued destruction of the 21,000-hectare forest has reduced water in rivers originating from the forest and fuelled fights for resources in drier areas of the Kerio Valley”.
When I walked over hills in Embobut Forest back in 2015, I didn’t see any farmed land, but there was some cattle grazing. Linah Kilimo, former Member of Parliament from Marakwet told me that the Sengwer stopped farming after evictions started. Some parts of the forest looked more like a meadow, with very few trees. Some had very vivid vegetation. There was a lot of water flowing around, monkeys, birds, and even some big cats walked freely.
Sengwers believe that they know how to preserve their forest because it’s crucial for their survival and provides them with the resources they need.
“Our culture, our way of life, our economies are anchored in the forest. Therefore our core work is to conserve and protect Embobut Forest the way we've been doing for centuries,” Elias Kimayo wrote on Facebook. “Sengwer owned and used those forests sustainably and collectively under clans and everyone clan member was entitled to protect the [thicker] forest for beekeeping, herb collection, hunting, shrines and controlled grazing, every clan knows it's boundaries to date, they had designated areas on open grassland for homes, and the forest was intact until evictions started.”.
To fight for their right to live the way they do, the tribe uses modern means — they have their own, legally registered NGO “Sengwer Indigenous Peoples Programme”, they cooperate with international organizations, go to courts, email foreign and local politicians, publish posts and photos on social media.
Right after the recent wave of evictions started, Sengwer representatives held a press conference in Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi and that led to action from the EU, which suspended its program immediately after Kirotich was killed in January.
"The shooting took place after we had formally alerted Kenya's Government that the use of force by Kenya Forest Service guards in the Embobut Forest or elsewhere against innocent locals would lead the EU to suspend its financial support for conservation work on the country's water towers," Ambassador Dejak stated in a press release. "Accordingly, we are now suspending the support to the Water Towers Programme with the Government of Kenya."
Unofficially the EU representatives acknowledge that they cannot do much more — their influence on the Kenyan government is minimal.
The EU was much faster and strict in its response than the World Bank, which issued some kind of apology only in 2014, after the end of the NRPM programme. “[R]isks of evictions were not properly understood in Project design and that a correct application of the Bank’s safeguard policies may have prevented or mitigated some of the harms caused by these evictions,” the agency’s inspection’s panel concluded (Which, if you take into the account World Bank’s language use, is a strong statement).
Meanwhile, on January 22, a Kenyan court ordered a halt to the evictions while it reviewed a case filed on behalf of the Sengwer community. Additionally, human rights groups supporting the Sengwers have asked Finland to stop their $12m program funding the KFS.
The forest people, however, continue to face serious opposition. Other local groups that support the Kenyan government have appealed to the EU to resume their funding. Marakwet community leaders have even offered help with evictions. And according to the government, it is targeting only “cattle rustlers and criminals.”
The Sengwers have heard that the KFS is planning to use helicopters to chase them from the forest. In early February, they saw three choppers hovering in the skies above their homes.
“Things are worse these days,” says Kimayo. He’s still recovering after he broke an arm and kneecap in January 2017 while recording KFS guards burning huts and trying to escape their bullets. Since then people have been too afraid to document the KFS behavior in the Embobut Forest. For his work, Kimayo won Kenya’s Human Rights Defender Award in January this year.”
On March 20, a team consisting members of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, the Amnesty International, the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders Kenya and the Katiba Institute were allowed into the area on a “fact finding mission” to “establish the veracity of forced evictions of the Sengwer people”. Local community has high hopes, but it’s too early to assess its outcome.