Kenyan authorities have burned down 28 homes belonging to the indigenous Sengwer community in the Embobut Forest in Western Kenya.
“What is happening now is so dangerous, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic,” said Elias Kimaiyo, a Sengwer community leader in Embobut.
Many community members had left the area in search of food when the raid took place, meaning they were unable to salvage their bedding and other possessions; the children who had remained at home fled into the nearby forest where they watched their homes burn.
The attack in Kapok Glade of Embobut Forest, which took place on 10 July, has left dozens of people in the cold, with no shelter, and particularly vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus. It is the latest in a series of attempts to evict the Sengwer from their traditional lands, a situation which has escalated despite the establishment of the EU-funded Water Towers Protection and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Programme (WaTER).
The programme, which began in 2017, was intended to improve the ecosystems of Kenya’s principal water towers while benefitting the nearby communities, yet since its inception, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of forced evictions, attacks and shootings of the Sengwer. In January 2018 the EU suspended the funding of the programme when a Sengwer man, Robert Kirotich, was shot dead by Kenya Forest Service (KFS) guards while taking care of his cattle in the forest, and another man was seriously injured.
Forced evictions are prohibited by the Kenya Constitution and the Land Act 2012. In May of this year, the government declared a moratorium on evictions for the period of COVID-19 pandemic following calls by UN Special Rapporteurs, yet these bans have been roundly ignored by KFS.
The UN has repeatedly condemned the KFS’ treatment of the Sengwer, and Elias refers to this when he says “I think they were warned not to continue burning houses because they went yesterday to the forest and ambushed people,” rather than burning any more homes.
While the WaTER project remains suspended, the Kenyan government is trying to negotiate for its resumption, as the EU must decide by 20 September whether to resume funding the project. In early July, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) facilitated meetings between the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, the County Commissioner and the Sengwer in an attempt to resolve the impasse, but the negotiations broke down following attempted intimidation of the Sengwer by the County commissioner and the UNDP representative.
Elias was one of the Sengwer representatives who participated in these meetings. He said, “[the] County commissioner was so intimidating throughout the two-day meeting… time by time he reiterated that we cannot allow people to go back to the forest and told KFS to make sure no one has gone back.” Elias explained that the Sengwer were ordered to switch off their phones and forbidden from taking photographs to document the meeting.
The location of one of the planned meetings was changed at the last minute, moving it from a place where the Sengwer had agreed to meet and felt safe to one where they felt exposed. As a community member explained, KFS changed the meeting place from one where the Sengwer “felt safe and secure to express their view as they are directly affected by the WaTER project, instead of being lumped with majority communities in order to expose and suppress their voices.”
UNDP has been positioning itself to take over from the EU as the key funder of forestry in Kenya – but these accusations of intimidation by the programme’s Kenya staff calls that into question, especially given UNDP’s commitment to safeguarding indigenous peoples’ rights.