What you need to know:
- The compensation saga took a new twist last year when the Sengwer community sued in the High Court in Eldoret claiming that the government had not consulted them about the payout. But the court dismissed their petition.
When the government paid Sh410,000 to each of about 3,000 squatters, including the Sengwer community, in the Embobut forest in Elgeyo Marakwet County, the beneficiaries were expected to buy land elsewhere and create room for the rehabilitation of the water catchment area.
But nearly a decade later, most of the Sengwer remain disgruntled. The Kenya Forest Service (KFS) demarcated the forest and ordered members of the community out of it so that the agency could secure it for planned afforestation programmes.
Some of the beneficiaries bought land in Moiben, Uasin Gishu County, while others moved to Trans Nzoia.
A majority of them, however, have since sold the land they bought and returned to the forest, which they consider their ancestral land, with nothing to show for the Sh410,000 they received.
They have settled on the dangerous Kerio Valley escarpment, a few kilometres from the Embobut forest, demanding to be allowed back into it.
The Sengwer, who are hunters and gatherers, occupy Embobut and parts of Cherang’any forest in Trans Nzoia. They have resisted several eviction attempts meant to pave the way for the water tower protection programme.
“What we know is that some of these beneficiaries are back and are grazing their animals in the forest, leaving no chance for the trees to thrive,” said Chelimo Kemboi, acting assistant chief of Kipchumwa sub-location.
Some of the people who perished in the 2020 Chesogon landslides, he said, had settled in the valley after being evicted from the forest.
“The Embobut forest is our ancestral land, but the government has pushed us to the dangerous hanging valleys, which we now consider to be our only home,” said William Kirop, from Sewes village, which was also hit hard by the mudslides.
A multi-agency enforcement unit was deployed to secure the forest in 2014 after those affected were compensated, said KFS acting North Rift conservator Anthony Musyoka. The squad was meant to ensure that no one went back.
“It is unfortunate that the forest has in the recent past been used as a hideout for cattle rustlers,” he said.
It is believed that after squandering the compensation money, the beneficiaries have pitched camp on the periphery of Embobut forest and have frustrated efforts by the government and donors to rehabilitate the water towers.
The compensation saga took a new twist last year when the Sengwer community sued in the High Court in Eldoret claiming that the government had not consulted them about the payout. But the court dismissed their petition.
The community has been challenging the implementation of the Sh3.1 billion Water Towers Protection and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation (WaTER) programme by the European Union (EU) and the government, arguing that it interfered with their ancestral land.
They petitioned the government to suspend EU funding for WaTER and halt planned evictions from Embobut.
“We ask the government to recognize our rights as forest dwellers and channel the funds to support conservation measures instead of resorting to evictions,” David Kiptum Yator, a member of the community.
The EU allocated money for the WaTER project until last year as a win-win for the environment and local communities, but the Sengwer have dismissed it as a scheme to evict them from their ancestral land.
Suspected bandits in early 2019 burnt a KFS conservation station neighboring Embobut forest, which is part of the Cherang’any water tower.
The EU has pulled out of the project after several attempts to reconcile the Sengwer and the government failed.
EU Ambassador to Kenya Simon Mordue disclosed that the programme was cancelled after forest dwellers and the government failed to agree on human rights and conservation issues before the deadline of September 24, 2020.
“All these efforts have not hitherto led to concrete and tangible agreements and commitments before the deadline of 24th September 2020,” he said.
“The contracting deadline had been extended three times, for an additional 3 years in total, and the European Union was not in a position to further extend the contracting period.”
The EU delegation, he said, had worked with various stakeholders, including the national and county governments, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, the Task Force on the Ogiek, and local communities in the project area to find a solution to the human rights and conservation issues.
“It is encouraging that dialogue between the Government of Kenya and the Sengwer community has in the recent past increased and there has been the willingness to find a compromise solution,” Mr Mordue said.
The EU water programme was a partnership with the government for conserving two water towers in the Chereng’any and Mt Elgon areas.
The water towers are natural water catchment areas, a critical water source for Kenya. It was designed to support the environmental action plans of 11 counties in the water tower areas in western Kenya. Conservation activities by the Kenya Forest Service and policy-related research by the Kenya Forestry Research Institute were also incorporated.
But it faced challenges following the eviction of forest dwellers and allegations of human-rights abuses against indigenous communities in the project area.
And Land Cabinet Secretary Farida Karoney last month promised to look into the issue.
Ms Karoney participated in a tree-planting event at Kakimiti shopping centre in Embobut over the weekend.
The minister, with other officials, expressed her commitment to resolving the dispute even if it means only partially implementing what the community and the government agree on.
These conciliatory gestures may bring an end to the struggle the Sengwer has waged for a long time to return to their ancestral home.