Kenya forest death: activists blame EU for ignoring human rights warnings


EU criticised for its ‘poor response’ after an indigenous herder is killed during a forced eviction for a water conservation project it funds


Thousands of homes have reported to have been burned down by Kenyan Forestry Service rangers in the Embobut forest.
Photograph: Forest Peoples Programme

The European Union has been accused of a fatally slow response to human rights warnings after the killing of an indigenous man at one of the projects it funds in Kenya.

Robert Kirotich of the Sengwer – one of the country’s last forest peoples – was reportedly shot by the Kenya Forest Service during a forced eviction for the EU-funded €31m water conservation project in the Mount Elgon and Cherangani Hills.

Members of his community said the forestry guards sprayed bullets at a group of 15 men who had been herding cattle in Kapkot Glade. The attackers reportedly burned homes, injured another man – David Kipkosgei Kiptilkesi – and killed Kirotich.

“We have been trying all along to avoid such a bad situation, but the European Union and the government have ignored our cries,” Sengwer activist Elias Kimaiyo wrote in an email to the Forest Protection Programme NGO.

Stefano Dejak, the EU ambassador to Kenya, has condemned the killing and followed through on a warning to the Kenyan government that the use of force would result in a suspension of funding.

The project will only resume “if guarantees are provided that it benefits and respects all Kenyans, indigenous communities included,” Dejak told the Guardian.

But this response has been criticised as tardy.

Thousands of homes have reported to have been burned down by Kenyan Forest Service rangers in a dispute over the highlands covered by the Embobut forest, which is an important water source.

Conflict over the land dates back to the British colonial era. More recently, it has flared up as a result of the government’s decision to classify the ancestral territory of the Sengwer and Ogiek people as a conservation area.

The residents have been designated as squatters and forced to flee what they say has been government harassment, intimidation and arrest.

Their received global attention in 2014 when hundreds of NGOs warned of “cultural genocide” and the World Bank admitted its carbon-offset project in the area violated safeguards.

Joseph Kilimo Chebet, father of five, inspects the remains of his homestead in Kenya. He says it was burned down by Kenya Forest Service officers. Photograph: Tony Karumba / GroundTruth/ICIJ

The EU became involved in 2016, when it agreed to fund the Water Towers Protection and Climate Change Mitigation programme, which covers the contested territory. Dejak said the social and human rights impacts were assessed in a feasibility study during the inception phase.

But Sengwer supporters say their warnings were ignored. Justin Kenrick of the Forest Peoples Programme said the EU funded the Kenyan Forestry Service and took a step back from the World Bank by failing to recognise the existence of the Sengwer and Ogiek.

“The EU’s response has been extremely poor, and entirely inconsistent with EU policy on indigenous peoples,” he said. “The EU did not learn from the mistakes of the World Bank project.”

Shortly before the killing of Kirotich, three United Nations special rapporteurs – John Knox, Michel Forst and Victoria Tauli Corpuz – asked Kenya to halt evictions and the EU to suspend its water project.

Amnesty International has also raised concerns. The NGO and other activists say the best way forward is for indigenous people to be involved in decision-making and community management of the forest.

The EU, UN and Amnesty will join a fact-finding mission to the region on Friday.


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