Community voices: interview with two indigenous Sengwer human rights defenders (Kenya)

Por Lorena Cotza Oct 30, 2020



In Kenya, the Sengwer indigenous communities living in the Embobut forest have been facing forced evictions, loss of livelihood and violent attacks linked to two conservations projects.

Between 2007 and 2013, the World Bank gave US$57 million to carry out a Natural Resources Management Project. Funds were also disbursed to the Kenyan Forest Service (KSF), that has been responsible for scores of human rights violations. The project led to mass displacement of members of the Segwer community and violent evictions: houses were burned down, properties were demolished, and community members were attacked.

In 2014, an investigation by the Inspection Panel, the World Bank’s independent accountability mechanism, found that the bank should have anticipated the risk of violent evictions. Yet, in 2016, the European Union’s European Development Fund (EDF) approved further funding, for the Water Tower Protection and Climate Change Programme.

Violent evictions continued. In 2017, human rights defender Elias Kimaiyo was attacked, while he was taking photos of KSF officers who were burning homes in the forests. Less than a year later, forest guards started shooting at a group of Sengwer people who were tending their cattle. Robert Kirotich was killed and two other community members were severely injured. Only then, EU officials finally announced the suspension of funding.

Below, an interview with two indigenous Sengwer community leaders about the situation they are facing now and the long-lasting impact of the conservations projects funded by the World Bank and the European Development Fund:

Can you tell us more about the World Bank project and how it affected the life of your community?

The first World Bank funded-project ran between 2007 and 2013, it was a natural resource management project focused mainly on two water tower areas. The bank sent a consultant to prepare an indigenous peoples plan and framework. The document was published and it required a commitment from the government that they would no longer displace members of the Sengwer community from their ancestral lands in forest areas.

It was a requirement of the World Bank that the government must prepare the indigenous peoples’ plan and framework before they get the funding. Through this document, the government committed to no longer displacing members of the Sengwer community from their ancestral lands in forest areas. However, forceful evictions of members of the Segwer community living in Embobut Forest continued. There were houses burned down, property destroyed, uniforms for school children were burnt, textbooks –  they were all destroyed. 

In 2013, we made a formal complaint to the World Bank Inspection Panel. Later on, they sent some experts to carry out an assessment to determine whether what we complained about was true. Because of the evictions and lack of consultation, the project was restructured. However, this was done without the knowledge of the local indigenous peoples. One of the main objectives [of this restructuring] was to address the question of land rights of the Sengwer peoples. But when the project was restructured, it was done without the knowledge of the community. 

The World Bank project came to an end in June 2013. When the project came to an end, the government made plans to conduct a mass-eviction of the Sengwer community. They decided, without consulting the community, to pay members of the Sengwer community some money so that they can move out of the forest. This was done without the knowledge of the community. They just went and opened bank accounts for some members of the community. People were given 400,000 Kenyan shillings, equivalent to about 4,000 USD. In 2014, the government went into the Embobut Forest and started massive forceful evictions. The Kenya Forest Service [(KFS)] guards were moving throughout the forest on a daily basis. Houses were burned down. Some members of the community were taken into police custody. Properties were destroyed. 

In 2013 we went to court to prevent the government from carrying out the evictions. A court order was issued preventing the Kenya Forest Service from carrying out any evictions. But the government did not adhere to the court order and went ahead with the evictions. A dialogue process between the Sengwer community and the government was set up, but this dialogue didn’t bear any fruits.

  • Can you tell us more about the project funded by the European Development Fund?

Then in 2015, the European Union started funding a project which was also focused on the water towers in the same catchment area. This project was done without consulting the community, so we raised the alarm. We wrote letters begging the EU to send human rights officers. Two officers, one from Brussels and one from Nairobi, went to meet with Sengwer members in the Embobut Forest. They confirmed that it is true that members of the Sengwer community are living inside the forest. The government was saying all along that nobody lives inside the forest [in order to secure funding for the water tower projects]. 

But immediately after the officers left the forest, the forest service guards went into the forest and started carrying out evictions in the area where that meeting between the community members and EU human rights officers had taken place. They carried out their evictions and Elias was attacked on 2nd april 2017 by Kenya Forest Service guards. He was attacked, he had his elbow broken, the kneecap was also broken. He was hit with the butt of a gun by a forest guard officer. As we speak now, Elias is still undergoing constructive surgery at one of the hospitals here in Kenya. 

Then on 9th December, following our continued complaints, the EU sent another human rights officer to investigate the truth of the allegations that we had submitted to the EU. She went to the community and gathered her information, then went back. Of all these reports, we have never had a chance to access the reports that were made; neither from the visit in July, nor December. That was in 2017. 

On 16th January 2018, one member of Sengwer community, Robert Kirotich, was shot dead by a live bullet from a member of Kenya Forest Service guards. And then again another was injured, shot in the leg; he currently lives with a disability. We have had all of these human rights violations.

When Robert was killed, the EU was compelled to suspend their finance. After suspending their financing, I think they told the government to investigate the alleged killing and attacks againstt community members. What the police did is they came and investigated, but they got witness statements from people who were not in that area when [Robert] was killed. The only person who gave correct information was [David], who was the person injured. I think that investigation has been going on, but with a lack of seriousness from the government, so it is not going anywhere. Even in a court of law, it cannot be shown that the officer shot this guy, because the people that are being touted as witnesses were not at the scene of the crime. I think that the investigation is ongoing, but it is not a strong case that we can rely on. They will be having the first hearing on the 20th of this month about the killing of [Robert] …

Both banks now have stopped funding projects in the area. But what’s the long-term impact of their investments? And have you been compensated for the violations you suffered?

The World Bank project was between 2007 and 2013, so it came to an end in June 2013. It was supposed to continue but because of the persistent land rights claims by the Sengwer community, the project came to an end … But for the EU, when the member of the Sengwer community was shot dead, then the project funds were suspended immediately on the 17th January 2018. Since then, the government has been pushing for the suspension to be lifted so that the project can go on. But we don’t know what is going to happen. But we think they probably may decide to restructure the project and come up with what we are calling a Green New Deal initiative.

On the issue of compensation, the community has never been compensated. As a community, what we are pushing for now is for the community’s land rights to be secure so that now members of the community living in Embobut Forest can live within the open natural grassland. Our priority is not compensation, our priority is for the government and development partners to recognise that it is our right to live within our ancestral lands in the protected forest areas. 

In the position of Kenya, and when you look at the constitution articles – it is [3.2(b):2] – it talks about the areas where the Sengwer people are living. Areas where we have been practicing our aboriginal hunting and gathering way of life is community land, whether it is in protected forest or not.

What I am saying is that the constitution of Kenya recognises our community land and this area from where the community is being forced to move out of is our community land. That is according to the constitution! And the national land policy also recognises that there should be restitution for communities that have suffered historical injustices since colonial times. Where we have a problem is that the Forest Conservation and Management Act does not recognise the rights of indigenous peoples and the forest communities to live within these protected forests or these protected areas. 

Our situation has never changed, especially at the moment. Evictions have been going on, even during the [government-Sengwer community] dialogue time … In July our houses got burned, and again later in the year, our houses were burned by KFS guards. 

We don’t know what the government is planning at the moment. As of today, we know that KFS from Nairobi went nearby [to Sengwer lands] and stayed for many hours … We are thinking they are planning further evictions. These threats exist because of a system in which our land rights are still the subject of [unresolved] dialogue with the government which has been going on for many years.

I think community members, the Sengwer people, we are living in fear. Even as we speak now, we cannot even build a house. People are still being pushed to live under makeshift houses, people are pushed to live in caves, in the thick forest. We cannot build houses in the open grassland, in the forest, because the KFS will come and burn them down, so we are still living in fear. And we don’t know what the government is planning. Anything can happen, any time. 

How is solidarity, at the national and international level, helping the Sengwer community?

We are in communication with other members of forest communities in some parts of Kenya. Recently, they were also subjected to forceful evictions. Other forest peoples are also under threat of these evictions. Recently, when we had evictions in July and August, we were able to come together as indigenous peoples in Kenya, bringing together pastoralists and traditional hunters and gatherers in order to make a joint statement with support from other friendly organisations. So luckily we are trying to come together to create an action plan now in order to raise our voices as indigenous peoples and local communities to argue for our land rights.

What has worked is also publicity through media houses and CSOs, both in Kenya and internationally; for example, Amnesty Kenya and Amnesty International, we’ve also been working with Human Rights Defenders in Kenya for a while. This publicity has brought us quite far; support is there where it was not before. 

For example, in a recent incident, because of media houses, KFS could not continue what they have been doing. What they did to us is they closed off the area and did not allow anyone to go in there. This was the instance when I was caught up in that scenario where I took a camera and documented this and shared it with media houses. But that is only one single incident and if it is better documented, it would be a big problem for KFS. It will at least help to see that people within the government are working to keep people out of the forest. 

I think that the most important thing is to add that we have created a local and international approach. With international [allies], they can focus on the international development banks, EU, UNDP and others; these are people that invest outside their country. When we have some of these international NGOs and media attention, if they can focus and target and get [the international development banks], then we are free to focus on the situation on the ground. 

For example, in 2015, we had a project that was funded by the Finnish government: IUCN, and again there was no consultation. We were able to engage IUCN until they had to restructure their project to bring in a human rights approach to conservation and also Free Prior and Informed Consent. But the [Kenyan] government won’t accept the restructured project with the human rights approach and FPIC. As a result, that project was cancelled as the IUCN could not continue because the community was saying that our rights have to be recognised and we are living inside the forest. So that was successful because we had support from friends from outside the country; CSOs, and also the media houses. 

Also another thing is the ability to engage with this meeting in November of the development banks, to get to their offices in New York or in Brussels and make them understand that indigenous peoples are aware of their rights and their rights need to be protected. When we do that, those people will now tell the government: “You have to respect the rights of these people before we fund you”. 

That’s the thing that has really happened with the EU. If [the project] is not cancelled, then we hope it will be restructured, and one of the things we are expecting is that they will force the government to agree with what we want and that is to remain on our ancestral lands as they carry out conservation. 


Amnesty report on the Sengwer evictions:

Case study in the Uncalculated Risks report:

A report on the illegal and forceful evictions, by Forest Peoples Programme

Acerca del Autor:
Lorena Cotza
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