By Sharon Atieno

As COVID-19 surges across the country, some indigenous and forest dwelling communities in Kenya are being evicted from their homes in a bid to conserve the forests. As a result, the communities have made several demands to the government.

The Community Land Action Now (CLAN), a network of community leaders and community based organizations whose members are pastoral, settled and forest communities have asked the government to stop evicting traditional forest peoples.

In addition, they should listen to the sacrifices they are uniquely willing and able to make to save their forests for themselves and all Kenyans, and agree to a practical and fair path forward with each community.

They have called on the government to honour the protection due to still-untitled community lands throughout the country by ceasing to ‘grab’ and turning woodlands and forests into Public Forests. And, invest instead in helping communities declare and manage these as Protected Community Forests on their own community lands.

Moreover, the CLAN asks that the government responds in the spirit of devolution and fairness to requests to return County Forests and Wildlife Reserves to the customary communities from whom they were taken.

They further urge that the Kenyan government should recognize that the old strategies of granting access, use rights and benefits is meaningless for as long as their forests are not recognized as their own; and, call for the upholding of the rule of law.

The Kenya Forest Services (KFS) has demolished over 300 Ogiek homes and property in the Mau Forest and burnt over 28 homes in Embobut Forest in the Cherangany Hills belonging to the Sengwer community.

In both cases, the government is arguing that the evictions are necessary in order to conserve the Embobut Forest and the Mau Forest, large closed canopy forests in Kenya and important watersheds. The government has repeatedly claimed that preserving this ecosystem takes priority over land claims of the Ogiek, Sengwer and others. Yet, a growing body of evidence shows that honouring land rights is the foundation for conserving forests sustainably, including those of national and watershed importance, a path which has been taken by so many modern governments.

Despite communities refuting these claims, the government still persists.In 2017 alone, there were 70 new forest gazettements across 11 counties.

“We wonder which County will be next” said Mali Ole Kaunga, Member of Il Ngwesi community in Laikipia County in a press statement. “So many communities are wrongly losing their natural forests and the chance to prove they too can protect and conserve.”

“It is unlawful and also immoral for Government to evict people without proper notice and in cold seasons—even ‘in the name of conservation’,” adds John Mwaiseghe, Member of Mdawida community, Taita Taveta County. “We believed government would honour its additional pledge in May 2020 to not evict people during COVID-19”.

In the same press statement, Wilson Kipsang Kipkazi, member of the Enderois community in Baringo notes that it is also unlawful to deny the Constitutional declaration that the ancestral lands and forests lawfully used by communities are community land.

“Legal routes for recognition of ancestral lands or transfer from Public to Community Lands are being curtailed by amendments even preventing us accessing legislators on forest matters without consent of the Service,“ he says.

“The Community Land Law of 2016 binds communities to protect their forests and other resources, but which we cannot easily do for as long as government goes slow on surveying and titling our lands. The Forest Law of 2016 provided for Community Forests—but now draft policy implies these will be only for new plantations which communities are advised to develop. First, we need assurance that our existing natural forests and woodlands will not be taken from us”.

“Kenyans may question if communities can really protect natural forests. We know we can,” said Peter Kitelo, Member of the Elgon Ogiek community, Bungoma County and Chair of the CLAN network. “Foresters and officials only need to look at the evidence of so many brother and sister communities on all continents.”
By 2017, communities were already acknowledged as owner-conservators in over 448 million hectares of forests. Many Community Forests are even now designated as Forest Parks and Reserves of national importance, and scientific studies testify to their success.

“The Mau Taskforce, for example, was shown NASA satellite imagery last year, illustrating how the major areas not burned in the raging fires in the Brazilian Amazon in mid-2019 were the millions of hectares, including protected parks, owned by forest peoples,” said Yator Kiptum, Member of Sengwer community of Cherangany Hills, Trans Nzoia County.

Community owned forests have also been the flagship of expanding natural forest protection in Africa, including in Namibia, The Gambia, and Tanzania, and are now evolving in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).