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Forest People Facing Violent Eviction

Crisis in Kenya

by OLIVER TICKELL

Hundreds of families are already fleeing from Embobut forest in Marakwet, Kenya, where the government has deployed riot police to evict more than 15,000 indigenous forest people – referred to by the Kenyan governmant as “squatters”.

Elgeyo County Commissioner Arthur Osiya says the families will not be given any extra time and that the evictions will proceed as planned. This is now expected to take place as early as Monday of next week.

Reports from community members in Embobut tell of a chaotic situation. People are terrified of violence and are escaping with their children and belongings in fear of their safety. In other recent attempts at eviction villages have been burned and children traumatised.

“They are banging the drum loudly in order to frighten people and hope they will move out without actually having to be evicted”, says Justin Kenrick of the Forest Peoples’ Programme (FPP).

150 police and forest guards including also 30 General Service Unit riot police are massing to carry out the evictions from the three locations of Tangul, Kipsitono and Maron near the forest. More troops may join.

World Bank involvement

The eviction is taking place under a World Bank-funded ‘Natural Resource Management Project’ (NRMP) with the Government of Kenya (GoK). The original purpose of the project is to protect the forest in which many settlers have made their homes, leading to widespread deforestation and threatening water sources.

But as Survival International reports, the World Bank project had the effect of “changing the boundaries of the forest reserves, which put the Sengwer at risk of further eviction from their ancestral land.”

Kenrick comments: “The project has failed to do what was intended – to regularise community tenure. As a result of this failure and through a programme of forced evictions, both the World Bank and the Kenyan Government are in flagrant violation of the Bank’s safeguard policies on Indigenous Peoples, Forests and Involuntary Resettlement.

“This means that not only should the loan to the Government of Kenya be suspended, but all payments already released to the Government of Kenya should be returned to the Bank.”

Violating Kenyan Constitution and High Court injuction

A forced eviction would violate the 2010 Kenyan Constitution: Article 63 (d) of the Kenyan Constitution recognises the rights of communities to own ancestral lands traditionally occupied by hunter-gatherers.

It would also be in contempt of an injunction issued by the High Court in Eldoret in March which forbids any evictions until the the communities rights to their land is resolved, and requires the government to respect the Sengwer’s customary and sustainable use of the forest’s resources.

An International Appeal from environmental and human rights organisations from Kenya, Africa and all around the world highlights this violation of these communities’ rights.

The Appeal was sent earlier this week to the Kenyan President and Government as well as to the United Nations authorities concerned with Human Rights and biodiversity, in order to protect the rights of the indigenous communities.

However the government insists that all the people to be evicted – including the indigenous inhabitants of the area – are “squatters” – even though they have inhabited the forest for centuries – far longer than the post-colonial Kenyan state has existed.

And according to FPP, “Sengwer communities should not be described and treated as ‘evictees’ or ‘squatters’, since their land claim to Embobut forest and other areas of the Cherangany Hills has a firm constitutional basis.”

Protecting biodiversity?

The government claims it is evicting the indigenous communities in order to protect the forest biodiversity.

However it appears to disregard its international commitments under the Biodiversity Convention to secure forest biodiversity by supporting – not destroying – practices adapted to its local regeneration, including the practices of indigenous communities which have sustained their ancestral forests for centuries.

The Government also argues that it has paid compensation to the ‘evictees’ – and that it is therefore free to proceed with the eviction. “The Evictees were given the cash and have no reason to continue staying in the forest”, said Arthur Esoyo, Elgeyo Marakwet County Commissioner, on 12th December.

However the 400,000 Kenyan shillings offered per family to move out of the forest is only enough to buy 4 cows or 1 acre of land in Trans Nzoia. Unsurprisingly most of those to be evicted have refused the payment.

Moreover the Kenyan Constitution also requires due procedures of consultation before such payments can be made, and the “free, prior and informed consent” of the indigenous communities.

No such consultation has taken palce, and no such consent has been given. Complicating the picture, some government officials have stated – off the record – that the sums paid out to date have been as “compensation” for past evictions and burnings of homes.

The Kentick comments: “If some indigenous inhabitants have accepted compensation for the past harms they suffered in the earlier violent and harsh displacements that certainly does not mean agreement to being forcibly evicted again.”

A bit of history

The Sengwer are a traditionally hunter-gatherer people, whose ancestral lands are located in the Rift Valley province in western Kenya, in and around the forests of the Cherangany Hills. The 2009 census registered a total population of 33,187 Sengwer.

The dispossession of the traditional Sengwer lands began under British colonial rule, and have continued post-independence, with the arrival of internal migrants and internally displaced people.

Then in 1964 the Government gazetted much of the Sengwer territory in the Cherangany Hills as a forest reserve in 1964. This had the effect of outlawing the Sengwer’s way of life and their occupation of their traditional forests on environmental conservation grounds.

“One of the Sengwer’s most prestigious hunting grounds was converted into a protected area, known as the Saiwa Swamp National Park”, adds Survival. “They have faced more than twenty evictions by forest guards since the 1980s.”

The hills are now considered an important watershed and so conservation law has been enforced on the Sengwer – despite the sustainable traditional livelihoods which have preserved the forest ecosystem for generations – and in violation of the 2010 Constitution which guarantees their rights.

What next?

“The government needs to sit down with the indigenous communities to find a way of protecting their rights to care for their forest lands”, says Kenrick. “The forced eviction in Embobut would violate not only the rights of the indigenous communities, but also the many human rights of other vulnerable inhabitants of the area.

“It is also wrong to treat as illegal ‘squatters’ those people who have moved into Embobut because they have lost their homes from the effect of landslides or due to past electoral violence, and who therefore have had no place to live.

“The government is responsible for securing the safety, homes, livelihoods and human rights of these already displaced vulnerable victims as well. This requires much more than giving them a small amount of money and blaming them for not surviving on it.”

“It now needs to determine with all the inhabitants who is willing to leave, and on the basis of what financial or other support, and who is willing to stay, and what sustainability bylaws they wish to codify to ensure their continued use of their forest lands is sustainable for themselves and their future generations.”

In addition the World Bank must immediately enforce its policies on Indigenous Peoples, Forests and Involuntary Resettlement – and demand that the Kenyan Government repay all the money so far advanced for the Cherangany Hills Natural Resources Management (NRM) Project.

Further information:

Forest Peoples Programme web page on the urgent appeal against the forced eviction of Sengwer/Cherangany communities in Kenya:http://www.forestpeoples.org/topics/rights-land-natural-resources/news/2013/12/urgent-appeal-against-forced-eviction-sengwerchera

Background information: How the World Bank is implicated in Embobut Evictions:http://www.forestpeoples.org/sites/fpp/files/news/2013/12/How%20the%20World%20Bank%20is%20implicated%20in%20today%E2%80%99s%20Embobut%20Evictions.pdf

Timeline of events relating to the forced eviction of Sengwer communities from the Embobut Forest area of the Cherangany Hills, Kenya:http://www.forestpeoples.org/sites/fpp/files/news/2013/12/Timeline%20re%20threatened%20eviction%20of%20communities%20from%20Embobut%20Forest_3.pdf

The Guardian: Kenyan families flee Embobut forest to avoid forced evictions by police http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/jan/07/kenya-embobut-forest-forced-evictions-police

FPP Proposal to Solve the Crisis at Embobut.

Oliver Tickell edits the Ecologist, where this originally appeared.