‘Recognizing our rights to live in our forests is part of the solution to climate change’
Justin Kenrick meets with Sengwer community's Yator Kiptum and Milka Chepkorir about the meaning of climate justice.
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The Sengwer community has been repeatedly evicted by the government’s forest guards from their forests and glades at Embobut, high in the Cherangany Hills in Western Kenya. Despite these evictions, and the torching of their round thatched homes by the government’s Kenya Forest Service (KFS), most have returned to tend their cattle and bee hives, hiding from the forest guards’ harassment. Their (now makeshift and temporary) homes are continually burnt and basic household property including schoolbooks and uniforms destroyed, and they are continually threatened with arrest despite the existence of a High Court injunction forbidding such harassment and evictions.
One Sengwer leader, Yator Kiptum, points out that trying to address climate change by making payments for supposedly locking up carbon in forests in the global south leads to governments and conservation institutions seeking to take control of the forests from the very people who have protected and sustained those forests for millennia.
Yator observes that: ‘Regarding all these discussions about climate change, the most important thing when it comes to indigenous peoples is the recognition of our rights to live, own and conserve our ancestral lands without any evictions. The recognition of our rights is the most important thing because when people look at climate change and REDD issues people look at money, livelihoods, etc., but in the case of indigenous communities the most important thing is for us to secure our lands to keep our identity, and to enjoy our life as other communities do all over the world.’
A young Sengwer woman, Milka Chepkorir, adds: ‘When the community’s rights are recognized they have enough reasons to take care of their own environment and prevent outsiders from destroying the environment and poaching antelope, because they have been cherishing it for all their lives. Being a youth, if nothing is done now or in the very near future then the generations that are coming after me will find a very strange thing than our grandfathers’ experienced. With the destruction of the forests we are going to lose plants and animals that we have cherished, and we are going to lose our culture, our life, ourselves.’
Yator points out that: ‘Indigenous peoples should not be seen as destructors, but as the people who have been conserving the forests for such a long time. Recognizing our rights to live in the forest is part of the solution to climate change.’
Milka adds: ‘It is a lie when Kenya Forest Service says they are kicking us out to protect the forest. They are kicking us out to be able to destroy the forest without us seeing it and stopping it. Before they came it was us who protected the forest. There should be an analysis of when this forest destruction began: it was when KFS came in. For them the motive is money, they want to keep us out, so they can give tenders as they want, without any community member being around to see and stop them. The forest is our lives.’
Yator continues: ‘Evicting us from our ancestral lands is not a solution. It leads to the destruction of our forests and climate change. The eviction of our communities from the forest should end, should stop. As the debate on forest conservation and climate change goes on, it is important that indigenous peoples / forest people are allowed to continue living in the forest. Even if they [KFS] continue burning our houses to force us out of the forest we will keep returning to our forests. The evictions and burnings has forced our community to live in caves, in the open, in the cold in the high hills, so many have got pneumonia.’
In addition Milka notes the severe impact on children and women: ‘It has also affected children going to school. This eviction has been done by a government that is supposed to be protecting the rights of her citizens, so it’s shocking to realise that as they evict people they are violating many other rights. You find women being assaulted: attempted rape. . . . They come to burn peoples’ houses, the people return and have to cut tress to build homes, and then they are burnt and then the community builds. You can’t care for the forest when they don’t let you care for it. People can’t go to school. School is no more. Women have no rights, because they are assaulted and beaten. The environment is also violated.’
Yator points out that: ‘By evicting the members of the Sengwer community from their ancestral lands the government of Kenya is in violation of its own constitution and fails to respect the rule of law. It goes against the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights.’ These evictions began in the colonial era, under the pretext of conservation, and despite the fact they have sustained their forest for millennia. Repeated evictions left the lands open to exploitation by those who have no interest in its survival. The only just and effective solution – securing ‘community tenure on conservation conditions’ – was presented by World Bank and IUCN community forestry experts at a Colloquium that brought communities and Government together in March 2015. This might seem ironic given the bank’s past role in enabling KFS to carry out such evictions, and given IUCN’s history of advising in favour of evictions. But the World Bank’s Inspection Panel had led it to think again, and IUCN has sought to rethink its approaches (see e.g. IUCN’s Whakatane Mechanism). Whether the Bank or IUCN sustain a rights based approach, or returns to supporting the old approach if those with power seek to ignore Kenya’s 2010 Constitution, remains to be seen.
The Inspection Panel criticized the Bank-funded Natural Resource Management Project (which ran from 2007 to 2013 at Embobut and elsewhere) for being non-compliant with the Bank’s safeguard policies. It stated that the NRMP failed to adequately identify, address or mitigate the fact that the institution it was funding (KFS) was, and still remains, committed to eviction ‘before, during and after the conclusion of the NRMP’ (World Bank Inspection Panel Report: paragraph 27, Executive Summary).
Kenya is progressing with a Forest and Conservation and Management Bill and a Community Land Bill, which are both at committee stage in Parliament, and which – depending on the outcome – could help reach a just and effective solution, or could run counter to the constitution and to conservation science. Meanwhile, the National Land Commission (NLC) has the chance to step forward and fulfil a key role it is tasked with by the Constitution, by addressing historical and current injustices against such communities.
Support for the NLC, for communities, and for strong legal input into legislation over the year ahead, will be crucial to determining the outcome. As will whether IUCN, the World Bank and other key development partners to Kenya – such as the Finns and EU – stand aside and accept an unjust, unconstitutional and unworkable eviction-based approach, or work with the NLC and other arms of Government to ensure success for forest dwelling communities, for the forests, for Kenya and for the world.
Justin Kenrick is Africa Policy Advisor for Forest Peoples Programme.