Nairobi — "They took a six-year-old boy and went around burning houses with him after his mother fled. They left him in the forest at night alone."
The Sengwer, a tribe living in the forests of western Kenya, say they have faced a fresh round of evictions by Kenyan authorities to pave the way for a European Union-funded project to protect water catchment areas in the region.
Some 100 Kenya Forest Service (KFS) guards started evicting Sengwer people from the Embobut forest on Dec. 29, activists said, in a case that illustrates tensions between indigenous people's land rights and conservation projects.
"They took a six-year-old boy and went around burning houses with him after his mother fled. They left him in the forest at night alone," Milka Chepkorir, an activist from the community, said at a news conference in Nairobi on Thursday.
The KFS said it was not aware of any evictions during the Christmas and New Year period, a position that was corroborated by Kenya's environment ministry.
"Some people have been trying to erect structures in the forest illegally and we've heightened our surveillance," Dedan Nderitu, KFS head of conservancy in the North Rift region, told Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Vincent de Boer, a representative at the EU Commission in Nairobi, said they had been informed by the KFS that guards in Embobut forest were there to deal with cattle rustlers from the neighbouring Pokot and Marakwet communities, not for evictions.
"This being said the EU will take independent measures to ascertain the facts," de Boer said in an emailed statement.
The Sengwer hunter-gatherers have fought with the government for more than five decades for the right to live in the Embobut forest in the Cherengany Hills from where they were first evicted by British colonialists in the 19th century.
Rights group Amnesty International wrote to Kenya's environment ministry this week with reports it had received from Sengwer community members and local media that KFS guards burnt at least 15 huts, fired shots in the air and shot dead several animals.
Amnesty said the December evictions were carried out despite a High Court injunction that forbids the eviction or arrest of Sengwer resident in the forest, pending the hearing of a court challenge to the legality of mass evictions carried out in 2014.
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.
"The approach of KFS is conservation without people," Clement Lenachuru, a commissioner at National Lands Commission of Kenya. "(But) the Sengwer are also not ready to sit down and discuss. They are becoming antagonistic."
Sengwer community leaders called on the government to halt a six-year, 31 million euro ($37 million) programme, launched in June 2016 to protect Kenya's five water towers in the Mount Elgon and Cherangany ecosystems.
"Our government has continued to burn houses and chase our people from our community land. They'd rather kill us on our own land than we go suffer elsewhere," said Yator Kiptum, a Sengwer activist. ($1 = 0.8300 euros) (Reporting by Kevin Mwanza , Editing by Katy Migiro and Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)