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State lost EU's Sh3.6b for water towers over rights violations

By Stephen Rutto | September 2nd 2021


Degraded Elgeyo escarpment as seen from the floor of River Kerio Valley. [Fred Kibor, Standard]

With more than 40 years of human encroachment, the Embobut forest, which sits on 21 hectares of land in Elgeyo Marakwet, is degenerating.

The forest is part of the Cherangany water tower complex in Trans Nzoia and Elgeyo Marakwet counties.

Nine years ago, the government evicted the communities, who had made the forest their home.

But an indigenous community – the Sengwer- remained in the forest, saying it was difficult to resettle outside the ecosystem due to cultural ties with the water tower.

The community resisted the eviction, which led to the destruction of huts in open spaces within the forest.

The complex is the source of several rivers such as Embobut, Arror and Mon, among others, which join with River Kerio – the main source of water for Lake Turkana.

About a year ago, a plan by the European Union to pump in Sh3.6 billion to hasten the regeneration of the forest was cancelled after the government declined to make peace with the indigenous community.

The community had complained about human rights violations during the evictions.

The Sh3.6 billion would have replenished the declining bamboo and indigenous trees destroyed by squatters and boost water levels in the several rivers and streams which start from within the forest.

Since 2018, a push and pull between the indigenous Sengwer community and the government reached an almost irreconcilable stage after one person was allegedly shot dead inside the forest by security personnel during the evictions.

Robert Kirotich was shot dead while herding cattle in the forest on January 16, 2018, while Elias Kimaiyo was seriously wounded in violent evictions in January 2018, sparking an uproar.

Paul Kiptuka, the chair of Sengwer community in Embobut forest, says the hunter-gatherer group is part of the forest’s ecosystem and has been conserving the forest for centuries.

Kiptuka says the community would have been involved in the planned conservation efforts funded by the EU.

“We have coexisted with nature inside the forest because that is our culture. We have, in recent years, developed our community by-laws, which the government has declined to recognise,” he said. “The Sengwer has shrines and worship places, circumcision sites, sacred grounds and medicine-rich areas within the forest.”

He added that the community was in the forest before the colonial period, claiming the State had violated their land rights.

The face-off between the government and the indigenous community attracted the attention of the international community, culminating in the cancellation of the Sh3.6 billion EU funds for the conservation of the waters.

“We wrote a letter to the EU after we got wind that the water towers protection money would be used to perpetrate human rights against the community. The EU visited the forest and discovered that our rights were being violated,” he said.

According to Kiptuka, the EU asked the government to engage with the Sengwer on how we would collaboratively manage the forest without violent evictions, but the government delayed resolving the stand-off.

In a letter addressed to the Sengwer community, the EU confirmed that it had cancelled the water tower funding after the government failed to address human rights violations, including violent evictions of the indigenous community.

Mid-last year, EU ambassador Simon Mordue toured Embobut forest and urged Environment Ministry to form a task force to resolve the stalemate between the Sengwer and the government, but no solution had been found by September 24.

Kenya Forest Service (KFS) defended the decision to torch houses in Embobut, saying it was part of its mandate to rid the forest of illegal structures and dwellers.

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