Imagine coming from an ethnic community that is so numerically small that politicians overlook you, macro-economists have a hard time measuring your value to the economy, most Kenyans don’t know you exist and an internet search consistently turns up your community and forced evictions in the same sentence. This is the story of the Sengwer. This week, 150 of them are travelling 450 kilometres from Embobut Forest to the Nairobi capital to see the President of Kenya.
The Sengwer are internationally recognised as indigenous people alongside the Ogiek, Waata/Sanya, Endorois, Turkana, Maasai and the Samburu. There may be only 50,000 of them and 30,000 live in the County of Champions, Elgeyo Marakwet. Like most Kenyan communities, the Sengwer trace themselves back to a patriarch, Sengwer, the first inhabitant of the Cherangany hills.
Prior to the arrival of the British, the community were peaceful, practiced hunting, berry gathering and bee-keeping for honey. The colonials hit them hard. Refusing to recognize them as a distinct ethnic group, they routinely evicted them from the forest and pressed them to assimilate into their bigger neighbors, the Marakwets. By 1918, the Marakwet Assistant District Commissioner described them as an “unrecognized, marginalised, oppressed and discriminated against hunter-gatherer indigenous group.”
One hundred years later, Government policy documents re-confirm them as a vulnerable and marginalized group in 2019. Sengwer families are a third more economically disadvantaged than other rural households. Only 20% have a legal right to land and the majority are landless. 5,000 of them live in the Embobut forest. Legally, the Sengwer are citizens and enjoy the same package of rights as all Kenyans. However, they are politically less connected and socially networked than bigger ethnic groups. Although there is a Sengwer Professionals Association, the community has less than five elected or appointed State Officials with national influence and power.
The forest-dwellers have repeatedly experienced excessive force and violence. This has resulted in death, injuries and destruction of at least 2,531 forest-based dwellings by Kenya Forest Service guards between 2014 and 2018. The officers that killed an unarmed Robert Kirotich herding his cattle in Kapkok glade on January 16, 2018 have yet to be arrested and prosecuted. Those who have lost homes and property have received little compensation or redress.
Like in the Mau, the tension and violence in Embobut arises from the desperate need to stop deforestation, the destruction of our water towers and the loss of over 62 million cubic liters of water each year. Forced evictions have not helped these efforts. In 2018, the European Union stopped a Euro 31 million precious WaTER project funding to protest the violence against the Sengwer. Under the leadership of Environmental Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko, KFS harassment of the Sengwer has reduced following his fact-finding mission into the rights violations and the reconstituting of the Kenya Forestry Services leadership in 2018.
Our constitution offers both the Sengwer and the Government a break from this painful history. Given their past, the Sengwer clearly qualifies as a marginalised community who need to preserve their hunter gatherer culture. Under Articles 7, 11, 44, 59 and 100, the state is obligated to protect them, their language and intellectual property from assimilation by other larger communities.
The right of the Sengwer to access the Embobut forest is also protected by Article 63 and international human rights law. This constitutional article defines ancestral lands and lands traditionally occupied by hunter-gatherer communities as community lands. Converting Embobut into a community forest under the Community Land Act (2016) and Forest Conservation Management Act (2016) would protect the rights of the indigenous Sengwer people and task them to directly lead the reforestation effort. Like surrounding communities, their future depends also on the protection of the entire forest ecosystem.
This is why they began the #Walk4JusticeKE this weekend. Eighty-five year old Moses Leleu Laima and 19 year old Brenda Jepkore Cheboi are among them. On Monday morning, they are due to arrive in Nairobi to present a petition to their President. The petition has been signed by 270,000 people from Kenya and all over the world. It requests that the Government recognize them as custodians and conservators and allow them to live freely and peacefully in their ancestral Embobut forest.
This moment offers an opportunity to kickstart a dialogue that re-introduces community forest management and ownership as a sustainable model for forest conservation. Being one of the signatories to the petition, I also hope the President will be available to meet and receive their memorandum on World Habitat Day.
First published Saturday Standard, October 5, 2019. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group