NAIROBI, Kenya, May 15 – Amnesty International is calling for the conversion of the Embobut into a community forest under the Community Land Act (2016) and Forest Conservation Management Act (2016) to protect the rights of the indigenous Sengwer people.
In a report captioned “Families Torn Apart: Forced Evictions of Indigenous People in Embobut Forest, Kenya”, the human rights group has called for the immediate cessation of the latest spate of evictions of the Sengwer from the 22,000-hectare forest in Elgeyo Marakwet.
The report examines government-run consultations between 2009 and 2013 that resulted in mass forced evictions of the Sengwer in 2014 and renewed evictions in December 2017, a process Amnesty has said was fundamentally flawed.
According to Amnesty International, 114 members of the Sengwer interviewed during research conducted between March 2015 and April 2018 cited rights violations during evictions which kicked off in January 2014 with a majority refuting claims that they had been compensated by the government.
“The Sengwer people were never genuinely consulted nor was there free and informed consent ever obtained prior to their eviction. This is a flagrant violation of Kenyan and international law,” Kenya’s Amnesty International Executive Director, Houghton Irungu, said ahead of the release of the report.
Among the 114 Sengwer people interviewed by Amnesty International – 61 men and 53 women – there were just 16 out of 48 men who stated they had been compensated.
Among women, the proportion of those who said they had not been compensated was higher with 23 out 34 women interviewed acknowledging receipt.
A further analysis showed that only 2,077 men and 797 women received compensation from the government with male and female identities of beneficiaries being deduced on the basis of their first names, a method whose accuracy could not be guaranteed.
The work of a Task Force set up in 2009 to establish those eligible for compensation has also been put to question with some of the members of Sengwer evicted from as far back as 1980 when colonial authorities first ordered indigenous people out of the forest.
In one of the case study, a woman identified as Elizabeth who was evicted alongside her late husband in 1983 said he was not registered for compensation after a local administrator dismissed her permit – a document issued to registered dwellers of the forest.
“The chief rubbished the permit, saying it was not genuine. Then he blamed the men around me – my family – saying how could they allow a woman to have the permit?” Elizabeth recounted.
According to the report, the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) guards burnt an estimated 800-1,500 houses in January 2014 with an additional 341 houses being burnt on Christmas Day last year.
During the mass torching, one Sengwer man was killed with another hospitalized with gunshot wounds attributed to KFS guards.
The latest evictions triggered the European Union (EU) to suspend funding for the Kenya Water Towers Protection Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Programme on January 17.
Amnesty Kenya has urged the government to allow indigenous persons evicted from the Embobut to return to their ancestral homes so that they can rebuild their lives.
“The situation is urgent as people are still at risk of being forcibly evicted from their homes. The government must immediately cease all evictions and those who have been evicted must be allowed to return to their homes to dwell in safety and dignity and participate in reforestation,” said Irungu.
“Development is vital for Kenya, but it must not carry a human cost. All donors funding projects in Embobut Forest, including the EU, must ensure that conservation and climate change projects do not cause, or contribute to, human rights violations,” he added.
In the report published on Tuesday, Amnesty International also asked the government to ratify Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization on the rights of indigenous people.
The eviction of the Sengwer has according to the report forced families to live separately as mothers and children flee the forest leaving husbands behind in fear of violent attacks.
A worrying number of men have also been reported to have deserted their families due to their inability to provide for them since their only source of livelihood – hunting and gathering – has been disrupted by KFS guards evicting them from the Embobut.
Amnesty International has asked the government to issue an apology to all Embobut residents in addition to guarantees of non-repetition of rights violations.
The KFS has blamed influence from non-indigenous communities who joined the Sengwer in the Embobut to activities linked to degradation of forest cover such as farming.