Kenya's forest communities face eviction from ancestral lands - even during pandemic

Forest-dwelling communities in Kenya are being forcibly evicted from their ancestral lands, as temperatures plummet and coronavirus cases soar, land rights campaigners said on Thursday.

The Community Land Action Now (CLAN), a network of more than 130 indigenous community groups, said the evictions by the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) had left hundreds of families in the Rift Valley region homeless and struggling to survive.

About 300 families from the Ogiek community who inhabit the Mau Forest, and 28 families from the Sengwer people in Embobut Forest had seen their homes demolished or burnt down, and their farms destroyed by forest guards, they said.

“Communities living in forests are finding it quite difficult because of these evictions. There should be a stoppage to these evictions,” said Peter Kitelo, who chairs the CLAN network, during a virtual press conference.

Officials from KFS were not immediately available for comment but the government has previously cited protection and conservation of the forests as the reason for the evictions.

Millions of people from Kenya’s indigenous and other marginalized groups face stiff challenges in exercising their land rights as many do not have title deeds, despite having inhabited the forests for centuries, say campaigners.

The Mau forest is home to about 50,000 Ogiek people who depend on it for their traditional livelihoods, including hunting and foraging.

Yet since colonial times, they have faced repeated evictions as their land is allocated to other communities for political reasons and used for commercial purposes, including logging.

The African Court on Human and People’s Rights recognised their right over their ancestral home in a landmark ruling three years ago, but the Kenyan government has failed to implement the decision.

It previously said the removal of the Ogiek people was necessary to protect the Mau Forest, known as the east African nation’s “water tower” because it channels rainwater into a dozen major rivers and lakes.

While in western Kenya, the Sengwer hunter-gatherers have fought for more than five decades for the right to live in the Embobut forest in the Cherengany Hills from where they were first evicted by British colonialists.

They have repeatedly faced harassment and eviction. The latest threat was from a European Union-funded water conservation project.

“These evictions have really hit us because it’s evictions during COVID times. It’s evictions when kids are not at school and during the very coldest season of the year,” said Milka Chepkorir, a representative from the Sengwer community.

Kenya has 15,601 confirmed cases of the disease and 263 deaths, according to the ministry of health.

Representatives from the Ogiek and Sengwer groups called on the government to recognise their rights as shareholders of the forests, adding that local communities were the best protectors and conservers of the environment.

 “We find ourselves treated like less than citizens, being evicted every now and then,” said Daniel Kobei, executive director of the Ogiek People’s Development Program.

“People have forgotten the fact that the Ogiek people are the owners of the forest. We are good at protecting the forests.”