Kenya: Kenyan security forces evict forest dwellers (IPS)

| February 24, 2014

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International human rights groups are condemning the eviction of thousands of people from Embobut forest in western Kenya.

The Sengwer people are indigenous hunter-gatherers who have inhabited the forest for hundreds of years and regard it as their ancestral home.

Yator Kiptum is a Sengwer. He says: “The Kenya Forest Guard is burning homes and belongings in the Embobut forest area. They are threatening [people] with AK-47 guns. Gunfire has caused chaos as families run to hide in the mountain forest.

It is thought that the entire estimated population of 15,000 Sengwer was removed from Embobut forest during the eviction. The Kenyan government is defending its actions in the name of environmental conservation and the need to preserve a water tower.

Tom Lomax is a legal expert with the Forest Peoples Programme, an international NGO that promotes forest peoples’ rights. He says: “Crucially, the constitution states that ancestral land and the land occupied by traditionally hunter-gatherer groups such as the Sengwer is ‘community land’ owned by that community.”

Mr. Lomax says these legal provisions are not being respected by the Kenyan government.

Richard Lesiyampe is the principal secretary in the Kenyan Ministry of the Environment. He stated publicly on January 7, 2014 that, “People were moving out of the forest willingly.”

The Kenyan government has pledged to compensate each family for their eviction. But Sengwer families have refused the 400,000 Kenya shillings (about $4,600 US) offered, claiming that a recent court injunction prohibits evictions until the issue of community rights is settled.

Evicting the Sengwer appears to break Kenya’s official commitments to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. The Convention requires signatories to protect indigenous communities and preserve their forest areas.

Mr. Lomax says, “These evictions are unlawful under Kenya’s constitution and under its international legal commitments.” He adds that the strong connection of the Sengwer to the forests means that the evictions threaten the physical and cultural survival of the Sengwer as a people.

The World Bank is currently being investigated by its own inspection panel. It is alleged that the World Bank’s redrawing of borders in the forest reserves allowed the Kenyan Government to begin forcefully evicting the Sengwer.

Since the 1970s, Kenyan authorities have repeatedly tried to evict and resettle the Sengwer elsewhere. International conservationists reject the Kenyan government’s position that a traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle is incompatible with conservation and forest protection. They say the government is employing an increasingly discredited philosophy known as “fortress conservation,” to evict indigenous communities rather than consulting and supporting them.

The conservationists argue that the best way to conserve the environment is to support indigenous communities that are experienced in preserving their habitat and resources.

Justin Kenrick, from the Forest Peoples Programme, says, “Far from protecting ‘pristine’ forest, [‘fortress conservation’] uses ‘conservation’ as its excuse to first evict the indigenous inhabitants before destroying the indigenous forest.”

Principal Secretary Lesiyampe said that, if security forces used force in evicting the squatters, it was wrong and against the law. He continued: “Today, I want to clearly state that the government did not forcibly evict anyone from the Embobut Forest. All the occupants left voluntarily to places of their own choice.”

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