Mau forest evictees’ plight intensifies as Kenyan authorities fail to provide vital assistance

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Police violence and property destruction during evictions in Kenya’s Rift Valley and a lack of support afterward has caused deaths and desperation for the people evicted, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.

Human Rights Watch visited the two camps and the town of Narok in March 2020, interviewing 37 people, including evictees and local authorities. Following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, researchers interviewed 7 more people in Sagamian camp, two of them representatives of the evictees’ association, by phone in June.

Human Rights Watch found that between August and November 2019, a combined team of 150 officers from Kenya Wildlife Service, Kenya Forest Service, Administration Police, regular police, and Narok county rangers used excessive force to evict people from 10 villages in the eastern side of the forest land, including Kitoben, Olaba, Kapkoros, and Kirobon. Witnesses and family members said at least seven people died during or after the evictions. Kenyan authorities have not investigated these deaths and other abuses and have instead threatened to forcibly shut down the camps.

Police also destroyed livelihoods by burning food stores and looting foodstuffs, injured and maimed several people by beating them with gun butts and big sticks, and torched houses or forced residents to torch their own houses at gunpoint.

In previous research on the first round of forest evictions in 2018, Human Rights Watch found similar human rights violations, documenting at least nine deaths and many injuries.

Kenyan authorities told Human Rights Watch that they carried out the two phases of evictions from Mau Forest as part of a plan to save the forest’s ecosystem, a source of at least 12 rivers feeding into 3 lakes within the East African region, which they said is under threat from illegal settlement and deforestation, among other factors. Evictions in 2018 and 2019 have targeted people who have settled on Maasai Mau, a block of Mau forest managed by the Narok county government that is held in trust under the Mau Trust Land. The Kenya Forest Service manages another 21 blocks.

The government said the evicted families had unlawfully settled in the forest, some for more than 30 years, and were contributing to the forest’s degradation. Some possess land ownership documents that the government refuses to recognize. The government said that, contrary to Kenyan and international law, it would not compensate or resettle people evicted because they were illegally occupying the land.

Despite credible reports of the abuses during the first phase of evictions and calls to halt them, including a pending 2018 case at the Nakuru law courts to stop the evictions, the authorities went ahead with a second phase in 2019. They did not follow the Evictions Guidelines of 2010, which require authorities to provide a 90-day notice, publicized in the official government gazette and posted in open places for those targeted for eviction to see. In late August, the then-Narok county commissioner, George Natembea, issued a 60-day notice, but allowed the evictions to begin just a day later.

The various forces deployed to carry out the evictions used violence and excessive force, Human Rights Watch found. Two people died due to police violence during or right after the evictions; others sustained serious injuries. At least five others died months later, potentially in part due to harsh conditions such as lack of food and excessive cold, but Kenyan authorities have denied that anyone died.

Sally Kipchirchir Langat, 33, said that on August 25, when she was 7 months pregnant, she had a miscarriage after 10 officers forced their way into her house, breaking the door, and pushed her to the ground: “I started feeling stomach pains after I fell on my stomach. The next day doctors told me the child had died in the stomach and needed to be removed urgently if they were going to save my life. I lost the child.”

A 35-year-old woman said she and her 65-year-old father, Joseph Ruto, went without food for days after police torched their food store and destroyed crops in the farm in Loliondo village, inside the forest, in September. Ruto died only five days later.

Under international law, forced evictions are in principle a serious violation of human rights, and states must take all measures possible to prevent forced evictions. States have the responsibility to ensure compensation for the displaced communities, irrespective of whether they hold title deeds. The authorities should also respect the right to property of any individual, family, or community that owned the land, including those owning land under customary law.

Where evictions are lawful and necessary due to exceptional circumstances, such as in public interest, it should be a last resort and authorities are still required to adhere to international standards. They must comply with the law, give those affected an effective right to challenge the eviction, provide accountability for violations, strictly avoid discrimination, and give attention to vulnerable and marginalized groups.

The Kenyan government has a duty under international human rights law to ensure that everyone in Kenya has a decent standard of living, including adequate food and housing.

In April, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced plans for a cash transfer program that would enable older people and other vulnerable members of society to buy food. The forest evictees have so far not benefited from the cash transfer program, Human Rights Watch found.

Kenyan authorities should urgently provide needed food, assistance, and financial support to thousands of people displaced in the Mau Forest evictions. The government should ensure that all those evicted from Mau Forest are adequately compensated, especially given credible evidence that the majority had bought the land close to 30 years ago. The government should also investigate all abuses during forced evictions from Maasai Mau and hold those responsible held to account.

“Kenya’s government should move swiftly to prevent further starvation-related deaths in the Mau camps,” Namwaya said. “Leaders cannot just close their eyes to what is happening with the Mau evictees, especially at this time when we should be cushioning the vulnerable against the effects of Covid-19.”

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