Reclaiming the forest: The Indigenous struggle for land rights in Kenya

April 12, 2021

Our forests are in danger. This is nothing new. For as long as I can remember, the media has been peppered with disturbing facts and figures highlighting the devastating rate at which deforestation is occurring – whether for the purpose of agriculture, logging, mining or infrastructure projects. While heightened restrictions helped noticeably reduce the pace at which forests were cleared between the mid-2000s and mid-2010s, that progress was short-lived. In 2019, the world watched in horror as footage revealed the Amazon rainforest going up in flames – a major set-back linked to the rise of Brazil’s right-wing Government, led by President Jair Bolsonaro. Yet, it was the following year, 2020, that was recorded as one of the worst years for deforestation since the turn of the century. We are, quite literally, playing with fire.

The threats posed by continuous loss of tree cover have been well documented. Forests play an essential role in regulating the Earth’s climate, acting as major carbon sinks, and are key to maintaining and protecting biodiversity, providing the appropriate habitat for over 80% of terrestrial species. But they are also home to many of the world’s Indigenous Peoples, most of whom have longstanding cultural, spiritual and ancestral ties to that land. The strong connection they have with their landscape, combined with an unrivalled understanding of the natural environment, make Indigenous Peoples experts when it comes to conservation and sustainability – a strength which is increasingly being celebrated on an international level. A recent report produced by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) draws attention to the role such communities have played in preserving the forests and their biodiversity in Latin America, recognising them as the best possible guardians of the forest. Similar accounts have found that although globally Indigenous territories represent less than 25% of the world’s surface, they hold 80% of our biodiversity. It is therefore increasingly evident that Indigenous communities play a vital part in the conservation of our forests and the future of our planet.

Unfortunately, however, this fundamental role is yet to be universally acknowledged – quite the opposite, in fact. For many forest dwellers, accessing ancestral land has been a continuous struggle since the colonial era. With inadequate legal recognition of Indigenous property rights, and indeed a concept of land ownership that is practically incomparable to the Western equivalent, whole communities are often violently evicted from their homes and forced to relocate. Their most basic human rights – access to land, housing, water, food and culture – are repeatedly overlooked by state officials or transnational corporations pursuing their own agenda.

This has been the case for several communities across Western Kenya, including the Sengwer people who have spent the past few decades battling against forced eviction, after safeguarding the region’s forests for hundreds of years.

The Sengwer are an Indigenous, hunter-gathering community of an estimated 33,000 people, based in the Cherangany Hills of Kenya’s North Rift Valley – 13,500 of whom live in the region’s Embobut Forest. Although historically, their livelihood did not rely on cultivation, they are also beekeepers, cattle-herders, and they cultivate certain crops. Unlike commercial farmers, they do not work the land for financial profit, but to nourish and sustain the health of the community. Their relationship with their ancestral lands prioritises a harmonious relationship with the environment at all costs. As such, the community lives in a way that nurtures and protects the forest, protecting its vital biodiversity, rather than exploiting it. ‘We live in the forest; we understand what the forest needs’, explains Winnie Sengwer, from Sengwer Pure Honey Slow Food Community.

Their traditional beekeeping practices illustrate this harmonious relationship between the Sengwer and their land; while preserving the forest’s native flora and fauna, the production of Sengwer Pure Honey also supports the physical, social and economic wellbeing of the local community.

The Sengwer have lived in the Embobut Forest for centuries, but they lost a vast proportion of their territories to British colonial administration in the early 1900s. Since, their land rights have been limited and precarious; far from being seen as guardians of the forest, as has been the case for forest dwellers elsewhere, communities like the Sengwer tend to be viewed as encroaching on valuable land. Indeed, they live in an area of major strategic importance, gaining widespread attention from transnational corporations for the development of conservation projects. The lush forests of the Cherangany Hills present the perfect opportunity for ‘carbon offsetting’ schemes, for instance – and the funding involved with such projects presents an undeniable opportunity for the Kenyan government. Unsurprisingly, rather than being at the core of these conservation projects, the Sengwer are perceived as obstacles to them, which justifies the constant evictions from the land they call home.

Slide Anything shortcode error: A valid ID has not been provided

There have been over 20 Sengwer evictions since the 1980s. The process is led by the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) who, operating under the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, have a long-standing history of violence and oppression against Indigenous communities. Accusing the Sengwer of damaging the forest, they conduct brutal evictions, using force to intimidate community members. These KFS practices are strictly prohibited both by constitutional and international law, which require the government to respect the Sengwer’s ancestral rights to the land and their sustainable use of the forest. However, such rights are proving difficult to implement on a local level and are blatantly disregarded, time and time again.

In 2016, the EU’s European Development Fund financed the Water Tower Protection and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation (WaTER Towers) project. Its aim was commendable – to improve ecosystem management in a region holding two of the country’s main water sources, in order to tackle both the human and environmental challenges of climate change. However, the EU had been warned that funding a project in that area would require meticulous monitoring of KFS methods, to protect the rights and livelihoods of local forest communities like the Sengwer.

Sure enough, in the years that followed the implementation and funding of the WaTER Towers project, KFS violence against the Sengwer escalated. In December 2017, 100 guards raided Sengwer villages, burning homes and attacking community leaders. A few weeks later, a Sengwer man was killed – Robert Kirotich, father of seven. Others were badly wounded. Shortly after receiving news of the attack, the EU suspended its funding, although its resumption is being negotiated.

While international organisations have repeatedly condemned the treatment of Sengwer communities, a general lack of accountability or consequences for the KFS has resulted in a repeating pattern of forced evictions. This pattern is unlikely to change, unless the entire approach to conservation is reassessed – including the role of forest communities within the process. This is something that the Sengwer themselves have been tirelessly fighting for. Standing strong against the brutality of the forest guards, the Sengwer have organised a solid resistance within the community, in order to protect their lands and their rights to the forest. Their aim is for their traditional customary laws to be recognised as the most effective and efficient conservation strategy, and for the Sengwer to be acknowledged as the rightful guardians of the forest.

The Sengwer struggle ties into a growing solidarity movement supporting Indigenous rights across the globe. As previously mentioned, the movement is gaining significant traction in various regions, and has already witnessed the successful establishment of Indigenous-led conservation models elsewhere, across Latin American, or in the Philippines, for example. However, as the Sengwer story highlights, there is still a long way to go. Strengthening solidarity towards these Indigenous groups is paramount – for the future of our forests, our people, and, ultimately, our planet.

Teaser Photograph: CIFOR

Lucia Monje-Jelfs

Lucia is Anglo-Colombian and grew up between the UK, France, Brazil and Colombia, before moving to Edinburgh to study Geography and Social Anthropology. Her international upbringing contributed towards her interest in postcolonial geographies, particularly in the areas of agriculture and food sovereignty.
She moved to Bristol in 2017 to start an MRes in sustainability, and recently joined the SFT as a communications assistant. Alongside her work at the SFT, Lucia volunteers as a grower at Sims Hill’s Community Supported Agriculture project.

Tags: community-managed forests, indigenous lifeways, indigenous rights