The preamble of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples sets out that “…respect for indigenous knowledge, cultures and traditional practices contributes to sustainable and equitable development and proper management of the environment”. Despite this emphatic international human rights standard, and the global leadership and commitment demonstrated by Indigenous Peoples throughout the world, some Indigenous communities in some parts of world continue to have their rights denied in the name of conservation. This troubling paradox lies at the heart of the controversy over Embobut forest in Kenya, from which the Sengwer Indigenous people have been evicted on an ongoing basis since the 1980s.
This process peaked in January 2014 when, after a series of consultations with forest residents, mass evictions were carried out in an attempt to remove all remaining Indigenous residents. An estimated 800 houses were razed to the ground by Kenyan authorities who attempted to justify their actions on environmental grounds. This happened despite a High Court injunction requiring the process be halted, to allow for the examination of a legal claim by the Sengwer that the eviction contravened their constitutional rights to land.
The government argued that the forest was heavily degraded, with large-scale deforestation, and that all human habitation had to cease. However, extensive studies have shown that when traditional communities have land rights and co-manage their eco-systems with the government, those environments flourish. One of the Sengwer livelihoods is bee-keeping, for example, which helps to propagate indigenous tree and plant types.
The eviction has had a devastating effect on the Sengwer community, as Amnesty discovered when we interviewed dozens of Sengwer men and women who have been evicted from the forest or who still live there. Many who left, did not get compensation and are now living in crushing poverty, in some cases families of 10 or 15 in one room. Some women reported that they had been sexually assaulted by their hosts. Amnesty also interviewed primary school head teachers who reported that Sengwer children were struggling in school, and often dropping out, due to the difficult conditions they experienced at home.
Many Sengwer, having heard what life outside the forest holds for them – often poverty and dislocation from their traditional livelihoods – refused to leave the forest, and now live in makeshift shelters constructed out of tree bark and sheet plastic, because they know that their homes will be destroyed if found by forest guards. They constantly have to keep one step ahead of the guards, in order not to be arrested. Both the arrests, and the destruction of their shelters, violate the High Court injunction.
The Kenyan government claims that it consulted fully with the Sengwer community and that they agreed to leave the forest. But as the report of the consultation shows, the starting point for the process was that all people must leave the forest, and asked how this could be achieved. It is hard to conclude that the Sengwer really had a say in the matter. The report also shows that only men – heads of families – would have access to compensation.
Currently Embobut, as a protected government forest, is effectively a closed area, in which human rights violations can take place without fear of being observed by journalists or human rights activists. Amnesty International has only been granted access to the forest on condition of being accompanied by forest guards – the very individuals accused by Embobut residents of harassing them, arresting them, and burning their huts. In April, Sengwer human rights defender Elias Kimaiyo was shot at and beaten by a forest guard, and is camera and laptop taken. He was filming guards while they were burning Sengwer huts.
In a case which bears many similarities to Embobut, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (of the African Union) ruled in May that the government had illegally evicted the Ogiek Indigenous people from the Mau forest, and had failed to substantiate its claim that the eviction would serve to conserve the forest. One thing that the court found was that the government had failed to identify the different impacts that different communities had on the forest – failing to differentiate between the Ogiek, for example, who have a spiritual relationship with the forest going back many generations, and other more recently arrived non Indigenous groups. This was also not done in the case of Embobut and the Sengwer people.
In this series of blogs Amnesty International is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Declaration. But what the Embobut case shows is that there is a long way to go before the high ideals of that document are realised – an achievement which, would safeguard the rights of Indigenous Peoples and fundamentally benefit the aims of forest conservation and future of our planet.
Profile: Elias Kimayo
Despite the continuous harassment they are subjected to by the Kenyan authorities, Sengwer people continue to resist. Many have refused to leave the forest, and therefore remain at risk of being arrested and having their houses as well as their belongings burnt by Kenya Forest Service (KFS) guards – who are in charge of carrying out the evictions.
Elias, a 37-years-old Sengwer man and human rights defender, has been evicted more times than he can remember – 9 times between January 2014 and March 2015 alone. He told us: “we no longer have peace to practice our proud culture and heritage and [to ensure the] conservation of the forest, due to frequent evictions by KFS guards”. This has had a devastating impact on his livelihood and on his family life: “I can’t live with my kids, they are forced to live outside of the forest because of the impact of the evictions. This might cause assimilation, loss of culture and identity. [My kids] are also missing crucial parental love and it might affect their future. It’s a traumatizing experience and daily psychological torture [for me].”
But he is not giving up. He has been documenting the human rights abuses against his community for years, filming KFS guards burning houses in his community. In April 2017 however, he was caught and badly injured by KFS guards: “I was taking pictures of Kenya Forest Service Guards who were burning houses of the Sengwer in Embobut forest. I counted 29 burnt houses. The guards started shooting at me. I ran, but tripped and fell, breaking my kneecap, and they caught up with me. They hit me with the butt of a rifle, and broke my arm. They took two cameras and an iPad from me.” He had to be hospitalised, and this left him with medical bills he is still struggling to pay.
The authorities are forcibly evicting Sengwer people from their homes, allegedly for conservation purposes. But the community has actually been a major asset for the preservation at the forest, they are bee-keepers and use its resources sustainably. This makes Elias very angry: “[The conflict between the government and the Sengwer community] has caused the fast degradation of the forest, the loss of resources and of the wildlife”, he told us, “the only alternative is for the government to trust and recognise the Sengwer people as the custodian of the Embobut forest. We have been caring, preserving and protecting the fauna and flora for centuries and have used it sustainably. We possess indigenous knowledge based on unwritten customary laws. If this is enhanced then it will provide a cheaper and lasting solution to the conservation paradigm and to this conflict. Within 5 to 10 years the forest will be fully regenerated. ”