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Kenya’s Sengwer People Demand Recognition of 'Ancestral Land'

Members of Sengwer community living in Embobut forest, Elgeyo Marakwet, gather to march to the office of the President Uhuru Kenyatta to present a petition seeking to stop eviction from the forest they have called their home for centuries.

The Sengwer, an indigenous hunter-gatherer community in western Kenya, presented a petition Monday morning to the government in Nairobi demanding the return and protection of what they call their ancestral lands. The community says it faces threats of eviction as Kenya's government takes over conservation of the country's forests and water supplies.

Hundreds of members of the Sengwer, a community that lives in the Embobut forest, spent two days marching from their ancestral land in Kenya's North Rift Valley to Nairobi in hopes of meeting President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Dressed in traditional regalia, they sang traditional songs as they arrived in Nairobi with the petition to the government.

85-year-old Moses Leleu took part in the march.

Leleu says, “As a community, we are yet to be recognized as a Kenyan tribe. That's one of the main reason we are here. The second is that we have been evicted several times from our ancestral land. We are now living in a small portion in these lands and still face imminent eviction. We want to go back to the areas we have been evicted from and be recognized as the owners of our ancestral land.”

Hunter-gatherer communities in Kenya are facing threat of eviction as the government takes over management of the country’s forests and water catchment areas.

Embobut forest is listed as one of the five most important water catchment areas in Kenya.

Since the 1970’s, Kenya's government, through its Forest Service guards, has carried out a series of forceful evictions of the Sengwer in Embobut.

An Amnesty international report said that during evictions in 2017, forces burned more than 300 houses, injured hundreds and killed a Sengwer man.

Amnesty International's director in Kenya, Irungu Houghton, walked with the Sengwer in Nairobi Monday.

“Their community is not considered by the economists to have economic value to this country nor are they considered to be politically very powerful. But they are Kenyans and they deserve their rights like other Kenyans. But in addition, they are indigenous people, which means they have a responsibility to the Earth that is very different from the rest of us. Their land is ancestral; they have for centuries been responsible for taking care of the forests in places like Embobut in Elgeyo Marakwet,” Irungu said.

Speaking to VOA, a senior Kenya Forest Service official said Embobut forest was "a government-gazetted forest and not an ancestral land. The official said the Sengwer were not a tribe but a "clan within another community that is not laying claim to the forest."

The Embobut forest is not the only area witnessing disputes between indigenous people and the government.

In August, the government announced plans to evict thousands they considered "encroachers" in sections of Kenya's Mau Forest, arguing that the move was to save the Mau ecosystem, which is threatened by heavy deforestation and encroachment.

In a report last month, Human Rights Watch asked the government to stop the "excessive use of force" during the Mau evictions and uphold proper guidelines in the ongoing process.

Kenya's Ministry of Environment and Forestry set up a task force late last year to advise the government on how to resolve disputes regarding indigenous people's claims to forest lands that are critical to Kenya's conservation efforts. The task force is set to present its findings to the ministry this month.