Cherangani Hills Forest is a critical water catchment that supports livelihoods within the Lake Victoria and Lake Turkana basins and feeds rivers in Kerio Valley. It covers approximately 95,600 hectares and is located within Elgeyo- Marakwet, West Pokot and Trans-Nzoia counties.
One of the gazetted forests in the Cherangani Hills is the Embobut Forest in Elgeyo-Marakwet County, and covers an area of approximately 21,000 ha. The strategic ecological importance of this forest was first recognised by the British colonial administration in 1893.
The Marakwet community were issued with permits to graze in the forests during the dry season but moved out when pasture became available in their native land. This was followed by proclamation order 26 of November 6 1954 that declared it a central forest via subsequent legal notice. Even then, this protection decision which is a separate law did not allow permanent residence or habitation, nor agrarian activity but granted limited access to licensed grazing. As a result the forest remained intact.
The rapid growth in the population of the forest-dependent communities over the years continued to put immense pressure on Embobut Forest as more people sought pasture in there while others settled in the woodland and embarked on farming resulting in massive degradation.
Some of the consequences of deforestation were the drying up some rivers that were the source of water for down-stream communities, who started raising concerns in 2004. The outcry led to the convening of a meeting of Marakwet leaders in April 2009 at Kapsowar. The gathering arrived at a unanimous decision that all people who had encroached into the forest would be required to leave and be temporally settled in seven glades.
A taskforce was established to investigate, profile and determine genuinely landless members of the community removed from the forest and make recommendations on how and where they were to be resettled.
There was 439 families of permit holders who were occupying various glades; 501 families if landslide victims who settled in the forest following the torrential El Nino rains of 1951 and 1961; and 767 families of dwellers, the Sengwer community.
Several ethnic communities live around the Embobut Forest. They include the different clans of the larger Marakwet group – Almoo, Talai, Cherangany, Sengwer/Kimaala -- as well as the Endoow, Markweta, Sombirir (Borokot) and Kiptaani. There are also members of the Pokot and Turkana communities. All derive their livelihood from different economic activities hence the frequent tensions and conflict between upper and down-stream communities.
There is also the problem of frequent raids and banditry. Last year, bandits attacked Kenya Forest Service (KFS) rangers camps at Tangul and Kamelei, burning them down and destroying vehicles and motorbikes and injuring the chief.
Under the Constitution, every person is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law. This principle is in line with Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Despite that fundamental truth, a number of activists and some international human rights groups seem to consider the “forest dwellers” as the only indigenous people with special rights to live in their “ancestral land” in the Embobut Forest. This argument completely ignores the fact that there are others groups of people dependent on the forest for their livelihood who would suffer irreparable losses from the destruction of the forest.
To ensure sustainable conservation of the forest and prevent natural resources-related conflicts, any decision on forest management should take into consideration the needs and rights of the upstream communities and the likely impacts they would have to the rights, needs, lives and livelihoods of the downstream communities. Otherwise, it could be a case of the tragedy of the common!
There has been a false narrative perpetuated by human rights campaigners and their benefactors that the rights of the Sengwer community have been violated by the government and KFS in particular as the group demands to be allowed to settle permanently in the forest. This assertion lacks objectivity.
Every right granted is accompanied by responsibility. The human rights activists and those who fund them have not supported any forest conservation efforts. Nor have they spoken out against environmental degradation. Their commitment to the welfare of the community they purport to defend is therefore questionable.
The negative activism, propaganda and misinformation have unfortunately borne the intended fruit. International development partners such as European Union and the United Nations Development Programme have either terminated, suspended or delayed critical conservation programmes in Cherangani Hills Forest and Mt Elgon. The commencement of the new Finland-Kenya Forest Programme is also threatened.
The principles on Human Rights and the Environment (1994) states that human rights, an ecologically sound environment, sustainable development and peace are interdependent and indivisible. As such, all the forest dwellers, 90 per cent of whom are the Sengwer, were financially compensated by 2013 and therefore no one has any legitimate right to reside in Embobut Forest or any other gazetted forests in Kenya as per the Forest Management and Conservation Act 2016; unless of course such a law is reviewed to include such provisions.
The same Act provides for community participation in the management of the gazetted forests through the Community Forest Associations. Therefore the legal framework of engagement between communities living next to Embobut Forest or any other forest and KFS is the Participatory Forest Management Plan and Agreement.
In the immediate term the EU, UN system and any other development partners supporting or intending to support conservation programmes need to undertake an independent and comprehensive assessment of the Embobut Forest issue to establish a true position to inform their decisions going forward.
- The writer is the Executive Director, East African Wild Life Society