By Kevin Mwanza
Nairobi — United Nations experts have called on Kenyan authorities to halt forceful evictions of the Sengwer, a tribe living in the forest of western Kenya who say they are being forced off their ancestral land to make way for a water conservation project.
The Sengwer say they have faced a fresh wave of evictions by forest guards from Embobut forest to pave the way for an European Union-funded project to protect water catchment areas.
Dozens of Kenya Forest Service (KFS) guards started evicting people from the forest in late December in what they said were operations targeted at forest invaders.
But a statement from the U.N. experts said more than 100 armed forest service guards entered the traditional lands of the Sengwer in the Embobut forest, firing gunshots, burning at least 15 homes and killing their livestock.
Yator Kiptum, a Sengwer community activist said at least 70 houses had been razed by the forest guards.
“The Sengwer are facing repeated attacks and forced evictions by agents of the Kenya Forest Service, which is an implementing agency in the project financed by the European Union,” three independent experts appointed by the United Nations said in a statement on Monday.
“Consultations have not been held with the Sengwer to seek their free, prior and informed consent,” the statement said.
The Sengwer hunter-gatherers have fought with the government 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 in the 19th century.
The three U.N. special rapporteurs – John Knox, Michel Forst and Victoria Tauli-Corpuz – asked Kenya to halt the evictions and launch an investigation.
They also asked the EU to suspend funding of a 31 million euro ($38 million) water tower project that was launched in mid-2016.
Responding to the U.N. statement, Stefano Dejak, who heads the EU delegation to Kenya, said both human rights and climate action were top priorities.
The EU-funded programme seeks to conserve forests around hills in the western part of Kenya considered water catchment towers.
“One of them should not be sacrificed for the other: actions to protect them should go hand in hand,” said Dejak.
An official at Kenya’s environment ministry said KFS had not undertaken any forced evictions in Embobut forest and the government was working to resettle the Sengwer people elsewhere.
– Reporting by Kevin Mwanza , Editing by Ros Russell
SOURCE: Thomson Reuters Foundation