- In one of Kenya’s biggest watersheds, the Sengwer indigenous community has struggled to obtain land rights for the forest it has called home for generations.
- The government has been forcefully evicting the Sengwer from Embobut Forest to pave the way for conservation projects funded by international donors.
- The Sengwer, hunter-gatherers, believe that they can protect the forest while living in it better than the government can, using traditional knowledge passed down from their ancestors.
- They have developed a plan to do so, even as another round of evictions looms.
EMBOBUT FOREST, Kenya — One morning in May, David Kisang, 50, sat outside his tiny dome-shaped hut, with its walls made of sticks and black polythene for a roof, sipping tea. His two red calves grazed behind the hut while his cattle and merino sheep grazed further afield, outside the bamboo-stick enclosure surrounding his compound. From where he sat he could scan two grassy glades in Embobut Forest, where hundreds of cattle and merino sheep belonging to other Sengwer grazed.
Kisang’s compound wasn’t always as humble as it is today, with just the one small hut inside. He once had two big, round mud-and-thatch houses and a granary full of maize and potatoes. His children attended school nearby. Then, in December 2013, forest guards with the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) descended on the entire Embobut, evicting everyone living in the forest and destroying their property. That included Kisang and many other Sengwer.
Since then, Kisang’s life has been a game of hide-and-seek. He said he has to be alert at all times lest the forest guards ambush him, beat him and arrest him for trespassing. Round pits are all that remain of his houses. He lives alone because the area is no longer safe for his family.
“One can’t stay here with family because of the KFS,” he said. “Children can’t even go to school from here and there isn’t a house they can sleep in. There is no accommodation.”
Kisang’s story is a common one among the Sengwer, an indigenous hunter-gatherer group that has branched out into herding in recent decades as agriculture became economically attractive. Since the 1970s, the government has periodically evicted Sengwer from Embobut Forest, their traditional lands. The government says the evictions are necessary to protect the forest, which is part of an important water catchment being steadily deforested for food production. The Sengwer say that not only have they lost homes and property, including important documents like land permits and birth and educational certificates, but that families have been separated, some 5,000 people have been displaced, many injured, and one killed during the evictions.
The Sengwer obtained court injunctions against the forced evictions, Amnesty International and other groups have charged the government with human rights abuses over them, and the European Union withdrew funding for government conservation projects in the area early this year. Yet the evictions have continued; the most recent took place in late August, according to a local advocacy group called Sengwer of Embobut.
The Sengwer are now attempting a new solution to both conserve the forest and preserve their way of life. They are preparing to take their petition international, to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Arusha, Tanzania. At the same time, they are pleading with the Kenyan government to let them use their traditional knowledge to conserve the forest, and have put together a governing council and bylaws that they hope will assist them in doing so.
Protection and displacement
Embobut Forest is one of 12 forest blocks that make up Cherangany Hills Forest, a 956-square-kilometer (369-square-mile) complex that the Sengwer traditionally occupied. About 13,500 Sengwer lived in Embobut in 2009, according to the census that year, and another 19,700 lived outside Cherangany Hills altogether, in the neighboring counties of West Pokot and Trans-Nzoia.
Before colonial settlers arrived in the area in the early 1900s, the Sengwer occupied the hills outside the forest during the rainy season and retreated to the glades inside the forest when it was dry. When the settlers took over the land surrounding the forest for farming, they relegated the Sengwer to the glades year-round. The colonial administration then issued the Sengwer permits to inhabit the glades, where they lived as they hunted in the forest. The permits distinguished the Sengwer from non-indigenous communities wanting to occupy the forest illegally. These permits would become the only documents with which the Sengwer of Embobut could lay claim to the forest they have called home for years.
The government gazetted Cherangany Hills Forest as a national forest reserve in 1964. Starting a decade later, various acts of parliament attempted to protect the forest by rendering it unlawful for people to occupy it, effectively turning the Sengwer into squatters on their own land. At some point, the government began evicting people who lived in the forest; the Sengwer place the first evictions in the 1970s.
Cherangany Hills Forest is a major water tower, or watershed, that millions of people downstream in the Lake Victoria and Lake Turkana basins depend upon. In recent decades its forests have come under increasing pressure; a 2014 KFS report stated that farming and food production had extensively degraded 160 square kilometers (62 square miles) of the 220-square-kilometer (85-square-mile) Embobut Forest. The government has blamed this largely on grazing by the Sengwer and others, although the Sengwer say neighboring communities have harmed the forest far more by clearing trees for farming. Because of the area’s importance and vulnerability, the government has targeted the broader Cherangany Hills Forest as a conservation priority, drawing in millions of dollars from international donors like the World Bank and European Union and intensifying the pace and ferocity of the evictions in the process.
Tales of eviction
Kisang remembers the first time his family was evicted from Embobut, in the early 1980s. It was on the day of his wedding. Bulls had been slaughtered and traditional beer brewed. Neighbors and relatives were eating and making merry outside his new house when forest guards in boots and green jungle wear arrived, carrying long guns. Kisang’s father, now deceased, asked what they wanted, and they told him they had come to evict the family. He asked for time to finish the ceremony, and the guards left. A few days later, they returned and set the family’s houses on fire. Kisang and his entire extended family, about 60 people, left the forest to seek shelter outside. Weeks later, once the evictions had simmered down, they returned.
Kisang said he believes the evictions in those days were humane compared to what is going on now in Embobut. He said the recent evictions have caused his family untold suffering. Among the property he has lost are his children’s birth certificates, which the forest guards burned along with his houses in 2013. Kisang has been split from his family, living for months on end in a separate house. “I have nowhere else to take my cattle and sheep outside the forest so I have to stay here and look after them,” he said.
Kisang rents a house and an acre of land for his wife and children outside Embobut Forest, where they live and grow potatoes for sale. His wife also works on other people’s farms to support the family. Kisang walks the 5 kilometers (3 miles) there every afternoon to deliver milk and check on his family before heading back to the forest to spend the night protecting his livestock from cattle rustlers and hyenas.
The evictions continue, despite mounting pressure on the government to end them. The western edge of Embobut Forest bears rolling hills spotted with clusters of round grass-thatched houses. One cluster belongs to the family of Joseph Kiptoo, 39.
When Mongabay met Kiptoo on a May evening, the father of four was devastated. Two-dozen KFS forest guards had descended on his two huts with machetes earlier that day, and he didn’t know where his family was going to spend the night. The guards had left the main hut with no door, no roof, and two gaping holes in the mud wall. Soot-darkened thatch from the roof lay strewn on the ground.
“They said the part of my farm where I built my houses is inside the forest, according to a map they had,” Kiptoo said. But he showed Mongabay a government-certified map indicating that the entire property is outside the forest boundary. Kiptoo said he believes the attack was retaliation for his advocacy work on behalf of the Sengwer. He said KFS officers had detained him for hours at a forest station a few months earlier for guiding human rights activists on a fact-finding mission.
Others echo the same complaint. Elias Kimaiyo, a leader of the Sengwer of Embobut, said he suffered a dislocated knee and arm when KFS guards ambushed him in the forest while he was covertly documenting guards burning down a Sengwer’s hut in April 2017. “They shot at me several times as I ran downhill,” Kimaiyo said. “The bullets didn’t get me but I tripped on a tree stump and that is when the guard came and hit me several times with the butt of his gun.” Kimaiyo said the guards left him bleeding in the forest.
Kimaiyo is the only Sengwer to file a formal harassment complaint against the KFS related to the evictions. An official investigation into the incident has been going on for more than a year.
A death in Embobut
The decades of evictions came to a head on Jan. 16, 2018. David Koskei, once agile and athletic, now uses a walking stick after forest guards allegedly shot and shattered his knee that day. By Koskei’s account, he, his friend Robert Kirotich and three other men had stopped while looking after their livestock in the forest to watch, hidden among the leaves, as homes of fellow tribesmen were engulfed in smoke during an eviction. Suddenly a dog barked and a young man shouted “KFS!” The sound of rapid gunfire rent the air as Koskei and the others scampered in different directions. Koskei rose, looked back, took about three steps and then fell, all in a split second. He rose again but felt a sharp pain in his left knee and fell down in a heap. He had been shot. Amid the pain, he saw his friend Kirotich lying in a pool of blood. He wasn’t moving.
David Rono, the acting regional enforcement officer for the KFS, based in the town of Eldoret, was the operations commander at the time. Rono told Mongabay that he had led the dozen armed forest guards who opened fire at Koskei and his fellow herdsmen. According to Rono, Koskei and the others were “armed grazers” who were resisting the guards’ efforts to rid the forest of permanent settlements. “These guys were armed and we shot at them because they were breaking the law,” he told Mongabay. “The armed grazers also engage in cattle rustling and they had even shot at us in our camp before.”
Rono also denied that the forest guards shot Kirotich. According to him, as his team left the forest with the injured Koskei, they stumbled upon a body, likely a victim of cattle rustling. They later filed a report with the police.
Yet according to Koskei, Kirotich bled to death under the forest guards’ watch. Koskei said he was in excruciating pain when the forest guards stood over him and asked him who had shot him. Thinking quickly, he said, he told them he thought it was an ambush by cattle rustlers, lying so the guards wouldn’t kill him to silence him as a witness. “So, it wasn’t us that shot you?” Koskei said they had asked, and he replied that it wasn’t them. Later, two guards helped him up and carried him to a KFS station over 5 kilometers away. Kirotich’s body remained in the forest until his relatives came to retrieve it for burial.
Kirotich left behind a sickly wife and four children. She lives in Embobur village outside the forest on a half-acre piece of land that her husband had bought and built a house on. As a woman, she feels unsafe going to the forest alone to look after her livestock, so many of them have been stolen since her husband’s death. “It has been difficult here since my husband died,” she told Mongabay. “Getting school fees and even food to eat has been a problem. I have to work in people’s farms weeding and digging out potatoes in order for my children to eat.”
As for Koskei, his family’s situation has been precarious since the shooting. He lives with his family on the western side of the forest in a rented mud and grass thatch hut. When Mongabay visited, he hadn’t returned to the forest in the six months since. His aching knee prevented him from climbing Embobut’s steep hills to watch over his livestock. “I can’t go to the forest and my wife can’t go there either,” said Koskei.
The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights conducted a fact-finding mission in the forest weeks after the incident. “The KFS Rangers in Embobut played a role in the death of Robert Kirotich and occasioned the injury suffered by David Kosgei,” states the commission’s interim report, using an alternate spelling of Koskei’s name. The report calls upon the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution, the Kenya Police Service and the KFS to identify the officers responsible for Kirotich’s death and Kosgei’s injury. “Action must be taken against the responsible officers in accordance with the law,” it states.
The shooting garnered some international attention and resulted in the European Union discontinuing its funding for Cherangany Hills Forest conservation initiatives. However, the government has yet to carry out an investigation into the incident, and neither Rono nor any other officers have faced charges. Contacted for comment on the Kirotich case and the Embobut evictions more generally, communications officers at KFS headquarters referred Mongabay to Rono but did not respond to specific questions.
Meanwhile, the KFS has been undergoing its own internal crisis. In February 2018, a month after Kirotich’s death, aerial images of Kenyan forests showing massive logging elicited a public outcry. The minister in charge of forests, Keriako Tobiko, suspended the KFS director and formed a task force to investigate logging activities in the country. Around the same time, Deputy President William Ruto banned logging nationwide while rallying up citizens to plant more trees.
In a damning report, the task force recommended scrapping and reconstituting the KFS board. “[T]he Kenya Forest Service has institutionalized corruption and the system is replete with deep-rooted corruptive practices, lack of accountability and unethical behavior,” it stated.
Sengwer call for forest stewardship
Against this background, Kimaiyo’s group, the Sengwer of Embobut, maintains that the Sengwer can conserve the forest better than the state. The group is calling for the government to recognize the Sengwer as owner-conservators of Embobut Forest and have come up with a plan to manage the forest. The plan involves reviving the Sengwer’s traditional governance structure, made up of elders from the different clans, as the Sengwer of Embobut Governing Council.
The council would enforce new bylaws the group drafted that outline how the Sengwer will care for the forest, drawing on traditional knowledge passed down from their forefathers. The bylaws will guide the community on such matters as where to graze their livestock, build their houses, and keep bees; which materials to use for beehive making; and how to go about hunting and gathering sustainably. The Sengwer intend to involve the government in their enforcement.
Chris Chapman, an indigenous-rights researcher with Amnesty International in Nairobi who has studied the Sengwer, said he was positive about the Sengwer’s ability to conserve the forest if the government gives them the opportunity. He pointed to research showing that indigenous people the world over are capable of protecting the forests they live in, and in many cases do so more effectively and cheaply than governments. Despite the weight of evidence, indigenous people find it difficult to claim the right to manage their lands and are facing increasing violence and criminalization in their attempts to do so.
The Sengwer fit that pattern, according to Chapman. “For decades now, the government has used the approach of forced evictions, and handing control of the forest over to the Kenya Forest Service,” Chapman said. “The results have been disastrous, as the Task Force on Forest Management has shown.” Chapman said it’s possible the government will look at the evidence the Sengwer are putting before the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and realize it must change its approach.
Kimaiyo and Koskei are hopeful that day will come to pass. The Sengwer are taking their fight to the African Court in pursuit of the kind of justice another indigenous hunter-gatherer group achieved last year. In May 2017, the Ogiek won a historic case against the Kenyan government after almost a decade of legal battle when the court ruled that the government had violated their rights by evicting them from their traditional lands in the western part of the country. However, the Ogiek’s jubilation was short-lived. In July, while the Sengwer were preparing their own court case, Kenyan media reported that the government evicted the Ogiek again, in violation of the ruling of the court, which has no strong enforcement mechanism. The Ogiek have threatened to go back to the African Court.
Nevertheless, Kimaiyo remains optimistic for a favorable ruling that the Kenyan government will respect. “Unlike in the Kenyan courts where it has taken years, we hope to get a solution in the Africa Court in Arusha soon enough so that we can go back to our lives peacefully in the forest,” said Kimaiyo.