Kenya’s forest dwellers fight for dwindling ancestral lands

By Kang-Chun Cheng
Posted on Monday, 15 August 2022 09:53

Indigenous activist Elias Kibiwot strolls across a natural open space within Kenya's Embobut Forest.
Indigenous activist Elias Kibiwot strolls across a natural open space within Kenya's Embobut Forest. (photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

The Embobut Forest, one of the largest remaining blocks of indigenous woods in East Africa, is replete with natural springs and lush grass. However, even this arcadia is not immune to Kenya’s ongoing battle with forest loss: More than 53 square miles (about 7.4% of Kenya’s land area) of forest cover have disappeared over the past 37 years.

This past June, the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights in Arusha, Tanzania, ruled that the Kenyan government must grant collective land titles to the Ogiek people, and pay reparations for repeatedly evicting the indigenous people from their ancestral Mau Forest.

Brian Rotich, an environmental scientist at Chuka University, believes the landmark case may set a hopeful precedent for other indigenous forest-dwellers across Kenya.

“It will give the Sengwer and Cherangany hope that they too can get a similar ruling in their favour after two previous failed attempts to petition the Kenyan government in claiming the Kapolet and Embobut forests as their ancestral lands, in 2014 and 2019 respectively,” Rotich tells The Africa Report in an interview over email. He says he is “almost certain” that the Arusha court “will be the next stop for the Sengwer community. Whether the Kenyan government will comply with the judgement [or at least within the stipulated period] is another question that remains to be seen.”

Activists like Elias Kibiwot, the founder of Sengwer Indigenous Community Trust, are also cautiously optimistic. Over the years, the Sengwer have faced repeated setbacks and a frustrating lack of recognition by the Kenyan government as a distinct tribe.

Elias Kibiwot stopping for chai in Kapyego, a small village on the fringes of the Embobut forest in Kenya.
Elias Kibiwot stopping for chai in Kapyego, a small village on the fringes of the Embobut forest in Kenya (photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

Forced assimilation

The Sengwer are one of Kenya’s traditional hunter-gatherer ethnic groups, consisting of 21 clans scattered across the Cherangany Hills in Western Kenya. Before disruptions from the colonial government, the Sengwer migrated from the Trans Nzoia plains to the highland forests, depending on the rains. The forest provided everything they needed: fruits, roots, and herbs for nourishment and medicine; animals, such as buffalo and elephants, for meat and bone tools; tree bark and branches for fire and shelter.

However, they were banned from living in Embobut, their home since time immemorial, when it was proclaimed a national forest in 1954. Since then they have relentlessly sought to regain land tenure rights despite brutal confrontations with the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), whose allies include international organisations, such as the World Bank.

This forced cultural assimilation was based on the people they ‘most closely resembled’

In the early 20th century, the British started subdividing lands across Kenya. They decided that the fertile lands of the Trans Nzoia were conducive to agriculture and forced the Sengwer out. Unbothered by ethnic and cultural variances, the British lumped the Sengwer together with the pastoral Marakwets to simplify their rule.

“This forced cultural assimilation was based on the people they ‘most closely resembled’,” says Kibiwot.

In the 1920s, the British allocated grazing permits to the Sengwer, many of whom were illiterate at the time and did not use currency, so they could pay taxes. They were fooled into believing that the grazing permits were actually titles to their own land, Kibiwot explains. In 1929, the British established the Committee on the Dorobo Question to govern communities living within the newly delineated forest reserves, perceiving forest-dwellers as a supposedly “dying race”.

Under the circumstances, the Sengwer had no choice but to adopt livestock herding. Social malignation by the traditional pastoral Marakwet and Maasai people further pressured the Sengwer to acquire livestock, which they initially bartered for with forest honey.

Sengwer-owned sheep graze in a lush field in the Embobut Forest
Sengwer-owned sheep graze in a lush field in the Embobut Forest (photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

King’asia Mamati, a former adjunct professor at Bomet University researching indigeneity and climate change in Kenya, says failure to recognise the Cherangany Hills as the Sengwer ancestral land is a historical injustice that prevents the incorporation of traditional systems to protect the environment. Their forced transition from cultural livelihoods reduced both biodiversity composition and forest cover, he says.

Mamati tells The Africa Report that although the Sengwer have formalised their traditional oral laws, which include curbing overstocking and overgrazing, the “lack of a framework to incorporate the Sengwer traditional institutions and by-laws has made their attempt to provide solutions futile”.

This lack of representation in political channels is a problem Kibiwot has been addressing.

“Besides petitioning for formal recognition within parliament, a right we’ve never enjoyed, I work to sensitise Sengwer individuals about the rights we should have,” he says.

Resistance

Today, the Sengwer maintain certain vestiges of their ancestral livelihood: From hunting antelope and birds with bows and arrows, to bee-keeping with traditional hives. Kibiwot is a seasoned archer who forages for berries depending on the season. It’s a skillset he’s passing on to his two young children who live in Kapyego, a modest town adjacent to the Embobut Forest.

Elias Kibiwot holds out Momoon berries that the Sengwer forage each year.
Elias Kibiwot holds out Momoon berries that the Sengwer forage each year (photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

Kibiwot says he faced a difficult decision selling some livestock for a small plot in Kapyego in 2021, but felt the move would be safer and more secure. He recounts how his family’s home and subsequent makeshift structures inside Embobut have been burned down more than 30 times since 2014 by KFS officials during violent evictions.

“Inside the forest, young generations would wake up and simply be immersed in the environment,” he says. “They need to learn from their elders on how to not only live, but thrive.”

Joel Kiptala, 50, has lived in Embobut his entire life. The Kenyan government considers his existence there as a radical act, arguing that such ‘gazetted state forests’ (otherwise known as ‘public forests’) are under state control and habitation inside them is prohibited by law.

Today, he resides in a makeshift mudhouse boasting a stunning view of a rolling landscape edged by trees known as ebuurwo, poorowo, and loosin in the Sengwer language. His five children now live in Kapyego. Their childhood home within the Embobut Forest was burned down in 2014 during a KFS raid.

Joel Kiptale prepares chai in his makeshift home in the Embobut forest.
Joel Kiptale prepares chai in his makeshift home in the Embobut forest (photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

Alex Lemarkoko, a KFS commandant, says indigenous communities are included in participatory conservation, in accordance with the Forest and Conservation Act of 2016. However, he makes it clear that the government wants those living within the forest to relocate.

“It is no longer tenable for indigenous people to live there — Kenya’s forests are not expansive enough to accommodate people living […] there,” he says. “But they are not denied any customary rights to access the forest, for observance of cultural rights.”

If we had official ownership of our land, the way that the Maasai and Samburu do, we wouldn’t have to cut down trees for fencing

Crouching over a charcoal fire where Kiptala is brewing chai, Kibiwot says it’s sad how post-independence Kenyan governments carried on the colonial legacy of not recognising indigenous land rights.

The Sengwer are blamed for being poor stewards of the Embobut when that’s not the case at all, Kibiwot says. Despite the threat of constant eviction, they do their best to keep their traditions alive and are sensitive to their ecological footprint.

“We always keep practising [our culture], but minimally. Forested areas that were intact should remain so,” he says. “There’s beekeeping, no farming in the forest, no cutting of trees [and] livestock should be allowed only to carry[…] capacity.”

State corruption

The Sengwer have been responsible stewards of their land for centuries — all without the millions of dollars in foreign funding that go to nature preserves across the continent, Kibiwot emphasises.

Meanwhile, he says, what the government and foreign parties call “forest restoration” actually means more forceful evictions and land grabs in the name of increasing green spaces, “as we have witnessed in many areas here in Kenya and elsewhere like [the] DR Congo”. A special task force report by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights in 2018 found several instances when the Kenya Forest Service was accused of forest destruction by colluding with adjacent forest communities to participate in illegal logging and selling some of the timber to entrepreneurs.

Dawn in Kapyego, in Kenya's hilly Marakwet East county.
Dawn in Kapyego, in Kenya’s hilly Marakwet East county (photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

Despite the strained relationship between the Sengwer and the KFS, Kibiwot remains diplomatic. When stumbling upon freshly logged trees, he takes photos for evidence to report to local KFS officials. There isn’t much else he can do, he says, besides staying vigilant and working to keep the lines of communication open — one of the only channels they have.

Rotich the environmental scientist says climate change has only intensified resource competition.

“Especially during the dry seasons of the year, non-Sengwer herders from the lowland areas move up to the forest in search of pasture, often leading to conflicts with the locals,” he tells The Africa Report. “They are accused of herding large numbers of livestock into the forest, resulting in animals trampling and browsing on young trees, thereby hampering natural re-generation and rehabilitation efforts.”

Kibiwot agrees that restoration of their ownership of the Embobut will naturally restore traditional ecological stewardship.

“Right now, we can’t prevent the Marakwet and Pokot from herding within the forest and [we] are forced to build fences to preserve enough grazing for our own animals,” he says. “If we had official ownership of our land, the way that the Maasai and Samburu do, we wouldn’t have to cut down trees for fencing.”

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