- The Indigenous Sengwer people in Kenya’s Embobut Forest have gone through a drastic change in livelihood, from hunting-gathering to herding and commercial farming in the forest, leading to tensions with forestry officials.
- The Kenya Forest Service (KFS) says the practices are key drivers in the loss of 13,782 hectares (34,056 acres) of forest cover in the past 37 years, and has tightened its monitoring of the forest, leading to mass evictions and fines for those who choose to stay.
- The Embobut Forest is part of the Sengwer’s ancestral lands and was turned into a protected area in the 20th century, leading to a settlement ban; British colonial officials also forced hunting peoples to become farmers, giving the Sengwer little alternatives for land and livelihood, locals say.
- Other tribal groups and pastoralists are drawn to the forest by droughts elsewhere and commercial possibilities as the demand for meat grows.
ELGEYO-MARAKWET COUNTY, Kenya – Taking on the steep ridges one steady step at a time, Elias Kibiwot Kimaiyo heads deep into Kenya’s Embobut Forest, where he was born and raised. Gentle mid-morning light filters through the branches of cedar, eucalyptus and acacia trees and onto the forest floor. A rich earthy smell emanates from the masses of leaf litter. Kibiwot knows these trails by heart. Pointing to a fallen cedar tree that bridges a stream, he says it’s been there ever since he was a boy.
“I sleep the most soundly in the forest,” he says. Kibiwot is a member of the Indigenous Sengwer people who call the Embobut Forest their ancestral land. “Even in nice houses elsewhere, I don’t rest nearly as well.”
One of the largest remaining blocks of Indigenous woods in East Africa, Embobut is a key water catchment area in the Cherangany Hills, a range of mountains constituting Kenya’s western portion of the Great Rift Valley. For centuries, the Sengwer were careful guardians of their forests, until it was designated a protected area by the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) in the 1960s, leading to their eviction.
“We knew just how much bark we should take from a tree so that it would live while we got what we needed. The only reason why the Embobut is still here today is because we fought for these trees,” Kibiwot says.
However, the forest is now the site of the Sengwer’s radical change in livelihood over the past century. Traditionally hunter-gatherers, today they have no choice but to predominantly practice herding and commercial farming in the forest, a practice banned in the protected area. Development and changes in community needs are driving the encroachment of pastoralism deeper into the forests, Augustine Masinde, a director at the Ministry of Lands and Physical Planning, tells Mongabay.
Now, the KFS says the impacts of farming in the protected area are too much. Over the years, it has tightened monitoring of the Embobut Forest, culminating in mass evictions and fines, to keep the Sengwer from grazing on the land. Rangers attribute the clearing of forests for croplands, grasslands, grazing and charcoal production as key drivers in the loss of 13,782 hectares (34,056 acres) of forest cover in the past 37 years. This contributes to about 14.1% of Embobut.
Although technically illegal, some Sengwer risk living in makeshift houses — simple constructions of mud, grass and sticks — within the natural open spaces of the Embobut Forest, as their forefathers had done. There have been hundreds of incidents of home and school burnings carried out by the KFS within Embobut. At the moment, the threat of such forceful evictions remains.
Maintaining such connections to their ancestral land is worth the peril, says Joel Kiptala, one of the Sengwer community members living within Embobut, where he tends to his two cattle and 50 sheep — typical herd sizes for the average Sengwer. He still communicates to his children in the Sengwer language, forages for berries and medicinal plants, and knows how to hunt with a bow and arrow.
“The problem is that while these groups claim to be forest dwellers and also hunters and gatherers, they seldom practice the latter,” says Alex Lemarkoko, commandant of the KFS. The KFS says it’s also against a return to the practice of hunting, now known as poaching, in the forest.
“Human activities in the forest are undesirable with regard to conservation,” Lemarkoko tells Mongabay. “There is obvious degradation due to cultivation, overstocking of livestock, plots demarcation, logging, and erection of dwelling structures.”
For the Sengwer people living in the forest, the authorities’ demand that they stop entering their ancestral land to herd and farm isn’t backed by offers of either an alternative livelihood from traditional hunting and gathering, or land of their own since Embobut was seized. The incentive to continue herding livestock is also high as the demand for meat in the country grows. Goats and sheep can sell for between 4,000 and 20,000 shillings ($34-$170), while cattle can sell for anywhere between 12,000 and 120,000 shillings ($102-$1,020).
“We were forced out of the forest and not offered anywhere to go,” says Kibiwot, who is also the founder of Sengwer Indigenous Community Trust. “But we don’t want alternative land. The forest is our ancestral home. There’s no exchange or alternative for us to maintain our culture, and [that] would therefore be acceptable to us.”
He says the National Land Commission and ministry of lands, in conjunction with the ministry of the environment, should present either sufficient livelihood options or rights to herd on any other land.
Caught in limbo
In the early 20th century, the colonial British government grouped the Sengwer hunters and gatherers, together with the pastoral Marakwets, a separate ethnic group. Most remaining Sengwer were forced out of the nearby Trans Nzoia plains they had concurrently inhabited along with the Embobut Forest after the British decided that they wanted to farm maize on the fertile land.
The Sengwer were issued grazing permits within the Cherangany Hills by the colonial government, a move meant to wean the forest dwellers off hunting. This was a colonizer strategy to resolve the dorobo question, a derogatory term from the Maasai language referring to “those without cattle,” and to collect taxes. But the Sengwer soon lost their remaining ancestral lands when, in 1964, the newly independent Kenyan government gazetted the Embobut Forest as a state forest and banned human settlement there.
It became impossible for the Sengwer to claim land rights to the forest, given their lack of recognition as a distinct ethnic group. Yet thousands chose to stay within the Embobut Forest, their last remaining ancestral lands. In 1977, Kenya officially banned all forms of hunting, including by forest dwellers, as a response to the extensive poaching of rhinos and elephants. The Sengwer were left without a forest, rupturing the continuity of their traditional livelihoods, and restricted from carrying out their newly adopted practices.
Besides new legal constraints, there were also massive ecological shifts as many of the animals, including the buffalo, giraffe and bongo antelope that the Sengwer relied on, either migrated or were killed off with increased human activity within the region.
They’re caught in limbo, says King’asia Mamati, a former lecturer on Indigenous worldviews and environmental conservation at the University of Cologne.
Liz Alden Wiley, an independent land tenure and natural resources governance researcher, says the Sengwer are among those who deserve remediation in light of the historical “denial of cultural and spiritual attachment” to their land.
The National Land Commission and ministries of land and environment should degazette the Embobut Forest so that it’s once again community land as indicated in the Constitution, Kibiwot adds.
The Sengwer leadership has come up with bylaws that limit the number of livestock and demarcate areas where pastoralists can graze in the forest, such as open areas better suited to livestock.
“But the lack of a framework to incorporate the traditional Sengwer institutions and bylaws has made their attempt to provide solutions futile,” Kibiwot says.
According to a 2019 study, the Kenyan state has failed to fully engage the local community in Embobut’s forest management decision-making and equitable sharing of accruing benefits from forest resources, as Kenya’s Forest Actstipulates. Lack of recognition of customary rights to the land remains an ongoing issue — one that has degraded traditional systems that would otherwise protect the environment.
However, talk of land rights or inclusion is a contentious point for the KFS when the Sengwer still partake in livestock grazing within a protected area. The KFS also says the community has rights to the forest’s resources — for gathering herbs and fruits, collecting firewood, and harvesting honey — but may not live, graze or farm within the forest itself.
The expanding populations of both people and livestock has led to overgrazing inside the forest and the urge to clear the forest to create more pasture, Mamati says.
Brian Rotich, an environmental scientist at Chuka University, says the ecological impacts from such livelihood changes include the clearing of ground vegetation and cutting of tree branches for pasture, decreases in forest biodiversity and loss of ecosystem functions, and reduction in plant biodiversity and abundance. These are compounded by reported cases of livestock grazing within the forest by outside community members.
The conflicting interests of the community and government has slowed down the full integration of the community in forest management, Rotich tells Mongabay.
A race for Embobut land
The Sengwer are not the only ones seeking to gain access to the Embobut Forest. Other ethnic groups also practice commercial farming within Embobut, such as Pokot and Marakwet herders who sell their sheep and cattle to buyers in Eldoret or Nairobi. Such markets are traditional and informal, making the business of tracing the source of the meat difficult.
The demand for inexpensive meat has only grown, says Kiptala, the Sengwer herder.
Leonard Mindore, executive director of the Program for the Heritage of Ogiek and Mother Earth (PROHOME), an Indigenous rights advocacy group, says that since late 2021, there’s been a mass exodus of pastoralists from different counties coming to graze within forests such as Embobut due to the effects of drought on their lands.
Despite the strained relationship between the Sengwer and the KFS, Kibiwot says he does his best to remain diplomatic. When stumbling upon freshly logged trees, he takes photos as evidence to report to local KFS officials. There isn’t much else he can do, he says, besides staying vigilant and working to keep the lines of communication open. However, the loss of his people’s ties to the forest still troubles him.
“Inside the forest, young generations would wake up and simply be immersed in the environment they need to learn from their elders on how to not only live, but thrive,” Kibiwot says. “Without the forest, how will my children know their roots?”
Rotich, B., & Ojwang, D. (2021). Trends and drivers of forest cover change in the Cherangany hills forest ecosystem, western Kenya. Global Ecology and Conservation, 30. doi:10.1016/j.gecco.2021.e01755
Cavanagh, C. J. (2019). Dying races, deforestation and drought: The political ecology of social Darwinism in Kenya Colony’s western highlands. Journal of Historical Geography, 66, 93-103. doi:10.1016/j.jhg.2019.09.005
Price, M. S. (1969). The bongo of the Cherangani hills. Oryx, 10(2), 109-111. doi:10.1017/s0030605300007948
Rotich, B. (2019). Forest conservation and utilization in Embobut, Cherangani hills, Kenya. International Journal of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, 4(1), 7-13. doi:10.11648/j.ijnrem.20190401.12
Banner image: Kibiwot displaying his archery skills at his makeshift home in the Embobut, which has been burned down many times by KFS. Image courtesy of Kang-Chun Cheng.
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