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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Halt forced evictions and let the Sengwer people be

First published Sunday Standard, January 14, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group. This version corrects two factual errors on the total number of Sengwer and the year of the previous evictions in the print version.

While most Kenyans were celebrating the birthday of Jesus Christ and the Christmas holidays, our Kenya Forest Services were raiding several homes, destroying private property and shooting at members of the Sengwer community in Embobut forest. Attempts by the Kenya National Commission for Human Rights to access the area and investigate the incidents have to date been blocked by KFS.

Exposed nationally and internationally, an urgent meeting was convened by our Environment Cabinet Secretary to get at the source of the tensions this week. The powerful dialogue revealed a situation that can only be described in the words of my children as a “hot mess” that needs urgent resolution in the coming weeks.

The Sengwer are an indigenous community of 16,000 Kenyans. They live in the Embobut Forest on the Cherenganyi Hills on the western side of the Rift Valley. Traditionally, hunter gatherers and bee hive keepers, the Sengwer have been displaced several times from their ancestoral forest-lands. Colonial security and conservation practices denied them access to the forests. Another round of forced evictions were carried out to run World Bank funded programmes in 2013/4.

The Cherangany forest complex are at the center of important and competing issues. The issues range from historical injustices, ethnicity, resource access, climate change mitigation and human rights. Interests of ancestoral and non-ancestoral communities, saw-millers, land-speculators, conservationists and that age old rivalry between the Pokot and Marakwet have created a free–for-all that needs careful transformation.

It would be a mistake to see this purely as forest conservation versus community habitation issue. The colonial settlers did this and left an historical injustice that is only being tackled now in the wake of our constitution. It is true that the future of our food security and water resources for more than half of the country are at stake.

Eleven counties are directly affected by what happens in the Cherangany forest complex. Forest depletion here, is dry streams and rivers, no hydro-electricity and irrigation for farms in several counties, Uasin Gishu Governor Jackson Mandago stressed at the difficult discussions on Wednesday.

The Sengwer understand this. Their leaders stress their commitment to participatory forest conservation management. Various independent assessments demonstrate the Sengwer are not guilty of major deforestation. The problem lies with the saw millers, land-grabbers and non-ancestoral communities that are clearing the forest for commercial purposes.

Speaking truth to power this week, Sengwer leaders publicly called on the Ministry to stop the forced evictions, facilitate an independent investigation into the destruction of their property and violence and initiate community solution oriented dialogues in the forest. The European Union stated a solution has to be found for they cannot fund programmes that violate the rights of Kenyans. They called for dialogue to restore the conditions for a smooth programme.

One of Kenya’s best Governors according to Infotrak, Elgeyo Marakwet Governor Alex Tolgos publicly committed to leading these talks back in the county. The Environment Cabinet Secretary hailed the honest dialogue but disappointedly fell short of declaring forced evictions was not Government policy and more importantly, they would be halted. The powerful question “are we, unarmed Sengwer, armed militia to be shot at like this?” asked by Sengwer leader Elias remains unanswered.

Left unchecked, the manner in which KFS are currently undertaking the forced evictions will predictably lead to loss of life in the coming days. We will be forced to wrestle with our conscience and ask must we kill indigenous people to save indigenous forests?

Governor Alex Tolgos and Cabinet Secretary Judy Wakhungu must urgently match this week’s excellent dialogue by facilitating the independent investigation, compensation for the destruction and ground-level dialogues. The tensions in the Embobut forest are complex and need careful distinguishing and humane follow up.

To not do this, is to risk a multi-million investment that is important for the very survival of Kenya. It will also violate our constitution and in particular, Articles 22 and 63 that state all of us must be free from discrimination and indigenous communities must have a right to their ancestoral lands.

Forcefully evicting and harming indigenous people to save indigenous forests would lastly, lead some of us to wonder. Is the Tinwoo tree more valued and safer than the Sengwer in 2018? Must we get stuck in this binary argument of trees or people. Can we not do both?

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