NAIROBI - The Ogiek and Sengwer ethnic groups in Kenya say authorities have forcefully evicted them from the Mau and Embobut forests, burning hundreds of homes and leaving families homeless in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Kenyan government began the evictions last year, saying communities living in the forests were damaging the environment. Rights groups say the ethnic groups were protecting the forests from illegal logging and poaching.
In a media briefing held over Zoom Thursday, Kenya’s indigenous communities complain of harassment and constant evictions from forests they have called home for centuries.
Milka Chepkorir represents the Sengwer community. She says the COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped Kenyan authorities from evicting her people.
“This is one of the evictions that have really hit us differently because it’s an eviction during COVID times. It’s evictions when children are not in school and from nowhere they are just being rendered homeless and it’s during the coldest season of the year up in the mountains,” she said.
Last week Ogiek community families were evicted from their forest homes. Daniel Kobei says he and 50,000 Ogiek people have known evictions all their lives.
“We want to be very clear that the Ogiek has become a subject of eviction," he said. "The recent one, 300 families, are now homeless they are being housed by their neighbors… One of the issues is that the Ogiek community, with people refusing to honor their ancestral ownership of Mau, have let them every time being said they have become a subject of eviction.”
According to Human Rights Watch, 50,000 families in all have been evicted from the Mau forest, and 6,000 families have been removed in recent months.
The rights group also notes that in some instances, security officers used force to push people out of the forest. It says several people were injured in beatings and homes were burned down.
Kenyan government spokesman Cyrus Oguna dismissed the Human Rights Watch allegations, saying via text message that their concerns “are emotionally driven by certain acts of activism and not research.”
He also said the government will protect Kenyan forests for the good of the country, but in a humane manner.
Peter Kitelo, the chairman of Community Land Action Now (CLAN), a network representing pastoral and forest communities, said evictions have been going on for decades in the name of conservation.
“Most of the lands that we were evicted from were the ones where we had the best forests," he said. "At the moment for the Ogiek community of Mount Elgon the community is pushed up and the real forest is on the lower side. What has happened with those forests? Over the years there has been logging, and today there is no forest. The only natural forest is only found where the community is at the moment.”
The government wants Kenya to have 10 percent forest cover by 2022, up from 7 percent now.
Chepkorir of the Sengwer community says the best way forward is for the government to recognize the rights of the Ogiek and Sengwer communities to live in the forests and work with them to achieve conservation.