Kenyan authorities have sent in some 150 forest guards and police officers to prepare for an eviction of thousands of indigenous and other people from forest land in western Kenya, forest activists say.
The UK-based Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), which advocates for the rights of forest dwellers, said some people are already fleeing their homes out of fear. Any forced eviction of the Sengwer and Cherangay communities from their ancestral forest lands in Embobut, Elgeyo Marakwet County, would violate the Kenyan constitution and international law on human rights, FPP stated.
It would also be in contempt of an injunction secured at the High Court in the nearby town of Eldoret that forbids any evictions until the issue of the communities' rights to their land is resolved, FPP added. A court case on this is due to resume on February 6.
On Monday, Kenyan and international environmental and human rights groups sent an appeal to the Kenyan president and government, as well as to the United Nations, calling for protection of the rights of the indigenous communities.
"The forced eviction of these indigenous communities is illegal - and even more so if it is carried out through violent acts such as the burning of homes, school uniforms, books and means of livelihood.
Such forced evictions have been carried out repeatedly (most recently in May 2013 despite the interim injunction), but this time the government is serious about permanently removing communities," the FPP said in a statement, asserting that the government had not undertaken "any meaningful attempt to secure people's free, prior and informed consent to such a process".
Justin Kenrick, policy adviser for Africa for FPP, told Thomson Reuters Foundation the government wants to take control of the forest land "to make money out of it" under the guise of managing natural resources. The state maintains it has asked those living in the area - between 7,000 and 13,000 people - to move out in order to protect biodiversity and ease pressure on over-stretched water resources.
The government also says it has made payments of 400,000 Kenyan shillings each to nearly 3,000 families to compensate for their eviction and to buy new land.
The Elgeyo Marakwet County Commissioner, Arthur Osiya - who last month told those families to leave by Jan. 3 - was quoted by Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper on Tuesday as saying there would be no extension of the eviction order, as called for by local politicians and the affected people themselves.
Although an injunction has been served, it may not stop the Kenyan police trying to remove families from the land, the FPP's Kenrick said, warning that the situation could flare up early next week.
The government often refers to the communities living in or near the forest as "squatters". The FPP says the majority are indigenous people who have a right to stay, while others have moved into Embobut after losing their homes in landslides or electoral violence.
"The government is responsible for securing the safety, homes, livelihoods and human rights of these already displaced vulnerable victims as well. This requires much more than giving them a small amount of money and blaming them for not surviving on it," the rights organisation said.
The FPP urged the government to sit down with forest inhabitants and work out who wants to stay and who is willing to leave, and on what terms.
"The indigeous people (of the area) are clear about their willingness to give up activities that cause destruction of forests if they are allowed secure forest tenure," Kenrick said.