Categories Alert, Kenya

Kenya: Indigenous and Forest-dwelling Communities Report Illegal Evictions from Ancestral Lands during COVID-19 Pandemic

Adapted from Community Land Action Now statement and other sources by Holly Jonas, ICCA Consortium Global Coordinator.

The ICCA Consortium joins more than 150 other organisations in signing a solidarity statement condemning the Kenyan government’s forced eviction of Ogiek and Sengwer families from their homes and ancestral lands in the name of conservation.

As cold weather prevails mid-year in Kenya and temperatures plummet in the highland territories of Indigenous peoples and forest-dwelling communities, COVID-19 is surging across the East African country. But rather than being able to shelter safely in their homes, hundreds of families were evicted from their ancestral lands and their homes and farms destroyed by their own government in early July 2020.

The Kenya Forest Service (KFS) reportedly demolished over 300 Ogiek homes and destroyed fences, farms and livestock in the Mau Forest. Children and other vulnerable community members have been left homeless during the pandemic.

In Embobut Forest in the Cherangany Hills, the KFS reportedly burned 28 Sengwer homes on 10 July, including their blankets, utensils and other essential belongings.

READ MORE: “Press Release: Kenyan authorities burn down 28 homes belonging to indigenous Sengwer community in Embobut Forest” by the Sengwer of Embobut CBO and Forest Peoples Programme

In both cases, the Kenya government has argued that the evictions are necessary in order to conserve the Mau and Embobut Forests, which are large closed canopy forests and important watersheds. The government has repeatedly claimed that preserving this ecosystem takes priority over land claims of the Ogiek, Sengwer and other communities. This flies in the face of a growing body of evidence that honouring land rights is the foundation for equitable and sustainable conservation of forests.

In its May 2017 judgment, the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights declared that the Ogiek were not responsible for the depletion of the Mau Forest, and conservation of the forest could not be used to justify the Ogiek’s eviction, nor could it be used to deny their rights to practice their traditional livelihoods. The Court also ruled the Mau Complex was indeed the ancestral land of the Ogiek, to which they therefore hold rights.

“Restoring Ogiek Land Rights: A Story of Unity and Resilience.” Produced by Jason Taylor/International Land Coalition (2018)

Likewise, the Sengwer’s traditional knowledge system – now articulated in written bylaws – has long conserved their forest home. Like the Ogiek, this forest-dependent community still holds intact forest sacrosanct even as their ways of life have been undermined by decades of government policy, which have left the forests vulnerable to illegal logging, poaching and encroachment by outsiders.

READ MORE: “Amid ongoing evictions, Kenya’s Sengwer make plans to save their ancestral forest” by Anthony Langat, 24 September 2018, Mongabay.

Several organisations and networks have spoken out about these violations. A group of eight Kenyan and international human rights and conservation organisations issued a statement on 13 July 2020 expressing grave concern over the forced evictions and burning of 28 Sengwer homes, particularly in light of the Presidential declaration of a moratorium on evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Ogiek Peoples Development Programme (ICCA Consortium Member) called for international pressure on the Kenyan government to immediately halt evictions of Indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands.

Community Land Action Now (CLAN), a network of community leaders and community-based organisations in Kenya that includes several ICCA Consortium Members and Honorary members, issued a statement and held a press conference on 23 July 2020. The ICCA Consortium joined more than 150 other organisations in signing this statement.

CLAN’s statement asks that the government of Kenya:

  1. “Stop evicting traditional forest peoples, listen to the sacrifices they are uniquely willing and able to make to save their forests for themselves and all Kenyans, and agree a practical and fair path forward with each community;
  2. Honour the protection due to still-untitled community lands throughout the country by ceasing to ‘grab’ and turn our woodlands and forests into Public Forests; invest instead in helping us declare and manage these as Protected Community Forests on our own community lands;
  3. Respond in the spirit of devolution and fairness to requests to return County Forests and Wildlife Reserves to the customary communities from whom they were taken;
  4. Recognize that the old strategies of granting access, use rights and benefits is meaningless for as long as our forests are not recognized as our own; and
  5. Uphold the rule of law.”

WATCH: “Kenyan communities report illegal evictions during COVID-19,” virtual press conference organised by Community Land Action Now on 23 July 2020.

For more information, refer to national, regional and global news coverage such as:

Updates will be added here as more information becomes available.

Featured image: Sengwer representatives walk out of a negotiation meeting in early July 2020 after attempted intimidation by the County Commissioner and UN Development Programme representative. © via Forest Peoples Programme.