Edwin Kipkotich Kiprono was asleep in the forest beside his brothers and the family’s 10 cows, when he was woken by the sound of 40 guards running towards them.
The 21-year-old is a member of the Sengwer community, traditional hunter gatherers who have been playing cat-and-mouse games with Kenya’s authorities since British colonists evicted them from their land in the late 19th century. “I woke my brothers and we ran,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “If they caught us, they’d arrest us.”
In the darkness, he heard about 10 other families fleeing Kenya Forest Service (KFS) guards in the Cherangani Hills, some 400 kilometres (249 miles) north-west of the capital Nairobi. The Sengwer say they have been evicted from their ancestral land more than 20 times since it was gazetted as a forest reserve in 1964.
The case illustrates continuing tensions between indigenous peoples’ land rights and conservation policies throughout the globe, campaigners say.
The United Nations and the World Bank criticised the KFS in 2014 for forcibly evicting thousands of Sengwer from the forest by burning their homes, leaving many camped out by the roadside.
“We need to protect the forests,” said KFS commandant Alex Lemarkoko, justifying ongoing evictions. “They are not supposed to be in the forest. It is against the law.
“We want to integrate them into other communities and support them to engage in development,” he added. Across Africa, up to 14 million people have been expelled from their land to create protected areas like national parks, according to Charles Geisler, a sociologist at Cornell University, who dubs them “conservation refugees”.
“These evictions, it’s actually pushing the Sengwer community to extinction,” said David Yator Kiptum, a community spokesman. “We are calling on Kenya Forest Service to stop this continued harassment, evictions and arrests.”
When the Thomson Reuters Foundation visited Tangul, armed KFS guards, wearing animal skins and cowrie shell-beaded belts over thick sweaters, blocked entry to the Embobut Forest. About 5,000 families are living in misery and poverty in the forest, Yator said, often sleeping on skins under trees.
“When it rains, we really feel for the children,” said Jenniffer Kiptoo, 45, who said her family of 10 sleep under a makeshift shelter of wooden poles and a tarpaulin every night.