By Milka Chepkorir
The Sengwer people are an indigenous hunting and gathering community who primarily live in the Embobut forest in Kenya’s Rift Valley. They have been victims of unjust land management and conservation practices since the colonial period (early 1900s).
Gazetted as a forest reserve in 1954, Embobut forest is considered a conservation area by both colonial and post-colonial governments. This kind of conservation approach is undergirded by the belief that the only way to ensure protection of forests and associated biodiversity is to empty them of human presence and to instate what is referred to as a ‘guns and fences/fortress approach’. This approach has been used to disenfranchise communities of their lands. The Sengwer have undergone numerous evictions from the forest, the most recent of these during the COVID-19 season in 2020. These evictions are a violation of the Kenyan Constitution, as well as international law on human rights, biodiversity conservation and sustainable use. These evictions have created immense suffering and human rights abuses at the community level, including death.
The brutal process of the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) on forced evictions have been well documented, with thousands of Sengwer homes burnt to the ground. Their actions have also had a more intangible, longer lasting impact on Sengwer social, cultural and spiritual traditions, including Olack of access to medicinal herbs, desecration of sacred sites, early marriage for girls, disruption of the family as an institution, scattering of societal institutions, and severing of ties in clan and kinship systems. In a nutshell, in addition to dislocating communities from their landscape, these evictions tear the society apart in multiple dimensions.
Despite all of this, the Sengwer people have remained steadfast in the pursuit of their land and human rights over time. The Constitution of Kenya (2010) and the Community Land Act (2016) both recognize customary land tenure. It is against this background the Sengwer people have been articulating their claims to land and territory in recent times. These efforts have, for example, helped halt a EU-funded project that was to be implemented in the forest in collaboration with KFS. They also applied pressure to a World Bank-funded project by leveraging on the bank’s complaint mechanism. Climate change and the emergence of monetary-oriented conservation regimes such as REDD+ have further complicated the scenario because government and funding agencies use the arguments of saving forests to justify inhumane conservation practices.
Kenya is among the 50 countries that have committed to have 30% of terrestrial and marine environments under conservation by 2030. The area under forest cover in Kenya is now estimated at about 7%. The Kenyan government has been working to increase this to 10%. All together terrestrial conservation areas under government control are about 12.8%. Thus, expansion to 30% will mean dramatic changes in land uses across the country. Kenya’s ambitious conservation targets are set against a background of intense competition for land, an increase in land and natural resource-related conflicts, the expansion of large-scale government infrastructure projects and numerous land-related unresolved historical injustices across the country. Given the existing scenario, community land is likely to become heavily targeted for conservation projects.
The Sengwer people have their own knowledge systems and land management practices that have been undermined by insecure land tenure regimes and evictions. These evictions erode knowledge systems by dislocating the community from their land and cultural traditions. While government and funding agencies claim to be protecting the forest, they are burying a time-tested tradition of environmental governance and establishing new management practices that have not had much success in many other parts of the country and beyond. This sentiment is best captured in the words of a female member of the community:
In our Sengwer culture, when was a woman even allowed to cut down a green tree? Why don’t they just allow women and their children to go back and live in the glades? Our children are suffering from diseases they never suffered from when we lived in the forest; there are a lot of problems and bad health conditions. We would just like to be allowed to access our herbs, good and fresh air and clean water in the forest for our children and grandchildren. A woman is traditionally harmless to the trees. If they [KFS] claim they want to protect the trees, let the government therefore leave women out of evictions.
This project aims to articulate the Sengwer indigenous peoples environmental thought as a foundational plank in the struggle for land justice. It is important for the Sengwer people to have a well-documented indigenous knowledge system in order to counter the false narrative that communities do not know conservation and are naturally destructive. Through film, the project will explore these knowledge systems as encoded in the Sengwer story of origin, land use practices, relationships with forests and associated products, cultural expressions (song, dance, stories, crafts, dress, food) and its environmental interlinkages, and governance systems. The primary source of information will be from knowledgeable elders, who have lived in the landscape for most/all of their lives. Other information will be collected from a festival designed for the community to showcase its diversity of cultural expressions. This will be accompanied by tree planting activities.
This film and associated materials will be used as a resource to kick start indigenous educational programs, especially among the youth and other community members. There has been a breakdown of traditional learning systems because of formal education systems, evictions of community members, and influx of other foreign influences. Through the film and other materials, we will start a project of long-term learning and development of ethical principles that ensure sustainable land-use practices and just community livelihoods. In addition, these articulated knowledge systems will be important in weaving the social fabric together in order to create a strong community that can defend its territory into the future.
Feature image: Kapko women © Elias Kimaiyo
This project, Revitalizing Sengwer people-land relationships through indigenous knowledge in Kenya, is a collaboration among GEN members Milka Chepkorir and Kendi Borana, and is supported through GEN Project Packages. Learn about other projects by GEN members here.