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Kenyan government must stop Sengwer evictions and restore land rights

16 May 2024

Minority Rights Group (MRG) condemns the recent evictions of indigenous Sengwer families from the Embobut forest, their ancestral home. MRG calls on the government of Kenya to cease the evictions with immediate effect. We affirm the community’s claim that they are not squatters but ‘the indigenous peoples, the natives of Embobut forest and entire Cherangany Hills.’ The Kenyan government must respect the rights of Sengwer to live on, manage and own their ancestral lands.

On 29 April 2024, more than 150 Kenya Forest Service guards raided Sengwer homes in Kapkok glade within the Embobut forest and burnt them to the ground, destroying all their belongings and leaving families destitute and precarious at a time of heavy rainfall. More than 800 houses were burnt, affecting more than 2,800 families so far. This is a humanitarian crisis, and urgent measures must be taken to ensure the health and security of evicted families currently in a precarious situation. Further, compensation must be offered to those whose property has been destroyed and human rights violated.

Sengwer community members in the remains of a destroyed home. Credit: Elias Kimaiyo/Sengwer Indigenous Community Trust.

As an indigenous people, Sengwer cannot legally be relocated from their customary territory without their free, prior, and informed consent. Displacement without such consent amounts to forced evictions, which are unlawful under both domestic law and international and regional human rights laws. The community also has a court order in place stating that they should not be evicted.

Donor agencies supporting conservation projects in the Cherangany Hills Water Tower, including UN agencies, the EU, the World Bank and the African Development Bank, must respect, protect and promote the rights of indigenous peoples, ensuring that human rights-based approaches and free, prior and informed consent are central to any project.

Any conservation initiative in the area must include the community and respect and protect their land rights. MRG notes that the community has requested to be included in the conservation of the Embobut forest but received no answer from the petitioned government agencies. MRG reaffirms that any forest conservation initiative connected to the forced eviction of indigenous peoples is illegal and in violation of international law.

MRG further notes the troubling parallels between these evictions of Sengwer and the recent evictions of the Ogiek of Mau. Kenya must respect the land rights of indigenous peoples and recognize their vital role in protecting the environment. Research has repeatedly shown that indigenous peoples are the best guardians of their lands. Therefore, recognizing and respecting indigenous peoples’ rights to their lands is crucial in order to effectively respond to the climate crisis and protect the planet.

Previous evictions accelerated when the Kenyan government secured millions of dollars’ worth of World Bank funding under its Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation programme, as well as a recent government initiative to trade carbon credits on millions of hectares in Kenya. MRG calls on the government of Kenya to clarify whether the Sengwer evictions are linked to these initiatives. MRG also cautions against these evictions in the light of a recent loan, which the Kenyan government has agreed with the International Monetary Fund to increase forest cover, coinciding with the President’s recent announcement that all ‘water towers’ in the country would be fenced off and all human presence removed.

These most recent evictions are the latest in a series of successive forced removals dating back to the colonial era, when the British government turned Sengwer ancestral land into a conservation area. Following independence, their land was seized by supporters of the country’s new political elite. While the community still had access to Embobut forest, in the 1990s, the Kenyan government designed a harsh conservation programme that forcefully evicted all people from purported conservation areas, including Sengwer. Such evictions have continued until today.

Yator Kiptum, Sengwer community leader, speaks to the media about the evictions. Credit: Elias Kimaiyo/Sengwer Indigenous Community Trust.