Kenya: Mau Forest Evictees' Plight Intensifies

An aerial view of the Mau Forest on August 28, 2019.
press release

Nairobi — Authorities Fail to Provide Vital Assistance

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 today.

Since 2018, Kenyan authorities have evicted more than 50,000 people from Mau Forest lands, including more than 40,000 in July 2018 and the rest between August and November 2019. At least 6,000 of the people recently evicted are living in harsh conditions in makeshift camps in Narok county and have not been relocated or compensated as required under Kenyan law.

"Violently evicting forest dwellers is unacceptable and failing to help them to relocate or supporting them during the Covid-19 pandemic is even worse," said Otsieno Namwaya, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The government should urgently respond to this crisis by investigating reports of excessive force and other abuses, and upholding Kenya's guidelines for all evictions."

Human Rights Watch visited the 2 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, 2 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 benefitted 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."

For detailed findings, please see below.

The Mau Forest Evictions

As the largest water catchment area in Kenya, the Mau complex consists of 22 blocks spread over 400,000 hectares and extending through 7 counties, including Narok county. The forest is the source of at least 12 rivers that feed into 3 lakes, including Lake Victoria, the world's largest freshwater lake.

Kenya's government says it has now evicted all those it says had encroached on forest land on the Narok side, with evictions that began in 2004 and concluded in 2019. Government officials say they have reclaimed an estimated 40,000 hectares, which since 1974, had been under the irregular occupation by over 150,000 people.

In mid-2019, government officials in Narok told Human Rights Watch that illegal settlements and deforestation of the Mau had altered the whole Mau ecosystem, leading to prolonged droughts, drying of rivers, and the death of animals in the Maasai Game Reserve. The government first attempted to reclaim the land in 2004, evicting more than 100,000 people, but halted the process after a court order. With authorization from the court in 2018, the government restarted the process of evicting about 50,000 people who had remained in the forest, 40,000 in 2018 and 10,000 in late 2019.

Since 2019, when evictees started living in the two camps in the villages of Ol Megenyu and Sagamian, the authorities have refused to register the camps, making it difficult for aid agencies to provide support. The government declared the camps illegal and told residents to leave. The government has not provided any assistance and the authorities told researchers that any organizations seeking to provide assistance would need special permission.

The camp residents have supported themselves through menial labor, odd jobs, and donations from individual well-wishers and political leaders. Since March, when Kenya introduced restrictions to curb the spread of coronavirus, evictees told Human Rights Watch, they have faced more difficulties getting support or work. Several families said their relatives died or became seriously ill following an upsurge of disease and illness alongside lack of food and malnutrition.

Excessive Force During the 2019 Evictions

Human Rights Watch documented at least seven deaths during the 2019 evictions. Based on interviews with family members and witnesses and medical records, two deaths resulted from use of force by police and the other five correlated with the evictions and poor conditions in the camp. Several injuries were linked to the evictions. Kenyan government officials denied that any deaths were a result of the evictions.

A 53-year-old man said the group of police officers carrying out the evictions forced their way into his home in an area of the forest known as Sierra Leone in November, threatening to shoot them, beating them, and setting houses on fire. The man said that the police were ordering families to "set your own house on fire yourself or we shoot you." His 73-year-old mother was so shocked by the evictions that she went into depression, he said. She died a few days later.

A 42-year-old man, who is in the Sagamian camps, said that the evictions police pursued his family for days, evicting them from their home, burning houses down, and later torching their shop in the Sierra Leone market center, destroying their main source of income. He said that "this affected the health of my seven-months-pregnant wife. We were sleeping outside in the cold, in most cases without food. My wife went hungry for days."

Two months later their child died at birth. The doctors said that the death was due to prolonged labor, which he said could have been linked to the mother's malnutrition, the man said. At least three children whose families are currently in the camp in Sagamian died after fleeing into the forest to escape the evictions police, their parents told researchers.

In one incident in Kapkoros village in September, a 39-year-old man said he ran into the forest with his wife and children after the police stormed into his home with guns. He said he lived there for a month in dire conditions, during which his year-old son died from pneumonia. He said: "We lived in the forest for a month sleeping inside the caves or outside on the grass. We were scared to come out because police were everywhere and they were brutal."

In another incident in Olaba village in August, a 65-year-old grandmother said she ran to the forest with her daughter and three grandchildren, where two of the grandchildren died from pneumonia. "We would sleep out in the cold," she said.

A 42-year-old evictee and official of the evictee's association in the Sagamian camp said that on June 16, 2020, a 60-year-old evictee, Joseph Kilel, collapsed after going without food for a week and had to be rushed to hospital. At the hospital, doctors said Kilel's intestines had shrunk and compressed due to lack of food. Kilel is just one of the many people in the Mau evictees camps in Narok who either continue to struggle to get food or succumb to starvation, especially since the start of the Covid-19 crisis.

Looting and Destruction

The evictees told Human Rights Watch that the police looted household goods, stole money, burned food stores, destroyed crops in the farms, and killed livestock. These actions violate Kenyan evictions guidelines, according to which special measures must be taken to ensure that no one is arbitrarily deprived of personal property or possessions as a result of eviction and that "property and possessions left behind involuntarily should be protected against destruction, arbitrary, and illegal appropriation, occupation, or use."

Although senior government officials in Narok said they had allowed evictees to remove their belongings, the evictees said that the authorities did not allow them to harvest crops from farms, remove food from the stores, or carry household belongings. Instead, the evictions police destroyed mature crops in the farms, burned food in the stores, and torched houses, evictees said.

In Ol Megenyu camp, a 30-year-old woman, Purity Chebet, has yet to regain her speech, nine months after she suffered a stroke when the evictions team raided her family home at an area nicknamed Sierra Leone area within the Mau forest, shouting, torching houses, looting foodstuffs, shooting in the air, and threatening to kill her and family.

A 56-year-old father of 4 who was evicted from Kirobon village said he was unwell on the day of the evictions and thus could not remove any of his belongings. He said "when I later went back to take them, I found the three houses had been set on fire together with everything that was inside them. I lost everything."

A 47-year-old man who was evicted from Kitoben village said he was starving and had to be admitted for over a week at Tenwek hospital, Bomet county, in the Rift Valley, 70 kilometers from the camps, after police destroyed all his food reserves during the evictions. He said "I had nothing to eat for several days. This affected my health so much that I had to be admitted. The doctors told me that my intestines had shrunk and collapsed in the stomach."

Police prevented evictees from going back to fetch their belongings or harvest food, camp residents told Human Rights Watch. A 42-year-old man, who was evicted from Sierra Leone market center where he had a home and a shop, said police threatened to shoot him when he attempted to return to his old home: "Each time we tried to go back, police would chase us, throw tear gas at us, and threaten to shoot us. They would beat whoever they found."

Others who attempted to go back were arrested and charged with offenses, including possessing bows and arrows. In March, a 26-year-old man currently in the camp in Ol Megenyu described his arrest in November 2019: "At the station, police ransacked my pockets and took my phone and Ksh8,000. They never returned them to me." He said that despite accusing him of photographing them when they arrested him, they later charged him at a Nakuru court with possessing bows and arrows. He has yet to appear in court. A senior warden with Kenya Wildlife Service told Human Rights Watch in March that the evictees attacked the police with bows and arrows.

People interviewed in both camps accused the police of stealing household goods during the evictions, looting their food reserves and burning whatever was left. A 65-year-old man in Sagamian camp said that in August, 8 police officers broke into his house and took his radio, other electronics, and kitchen utensils and beat his 50-year old wife, who broke her leg as she attempted to escape the beatings.

In June, residents said several people in both camps have fallen ill, and possibly died from starvation during the Covid-19 pandemic. They said they had discovered the body of a woman in her early 50s, Selina Toweett, in her house at the camp in Sagamian and believe she may have died from starvation because she had moved around the camp days earlier, pleading for something to eat.

Camp Conditions

The plight of Mau evictees in camps was dire even before the Covid-19 pandemic in March, when researchers visited the camps. Evictees said they have survived on handouts from well-wishers, mostly their area's political representatives, and daily wages from menial jobs.

Due to the destruction of their food supplies, they did not have food when they settled in makeshift camps about two kilometers from the edge of Mau Forest. Five interviewees said they went without food for days after their eviction. David Kipng'eno Rono, 47, said he went 7 days without food, sleeping out in the cold in September, after the police evicted him from Kapsilbwa village in Mau Forest and destroyed all his food.

Despite this overwhelming evidence about the plight of evictees in the camps, officials in Narok town told Human Rights Watch that the camps are illegal and that any aid agencies that want to provide support to the evictees would first need to secure government clearance.

Although the situation in the camps has deteriorated due to inability to access food during the Covid-19 pandemic, the evictees have received food aid only once in April, from a personal donation by the area's member of parliament. The menial jobs have also dried up, since most businesses have shut down due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Lack of Eviction Notice

Kenyan authorities failed to adhere to their own guidelines and legal requirements for eviction notices. The guidelines require a 90-day notice to be published in the official Kenya gazette by the line minister. Government officials told researchers that they issued a 60-day notice instead and admitted that the evictions began the day after they issued the notice. The Narok county commissioner at the time, George Natembeya, made the announcement to the media when he visited those on Mau Forest land on August 28, 2019. Police began the evictions on August 29.

The current Narok county commissioner, Samuel Kimiti, admitted that the authorities had failed to publish and circulate this notice to all the affected communities. The guidelines also require posting the notice at several points accessible to those affected. The notice also should be accompanied by detailed eviction plans that clearly state the day, time, and procedures for evictions and measures to minimize their adverse effects.

Failure to Compensate and Resettle Evictees

Human Rights Watch found that the government has not sought to resettle or compensate the evictees, who are currently living in inhumane and unsanitary conditions in the camps.

Before and after the evictions, Kenya government officials repeatedly stated to the media that they would neither compensate nor resettle the evictees because the evictees had irregularly acquired and settled on forest land, although some do possess legal title deeds issued by the Land Ministry.

Narok County Commissioner Samuel Kimiti said:

At various media briefings in 2019, the environment cabinet secretary, Keriako Tobiko, restated the same government position, adding that the government would not compensate those with title deeds because those titles had been acquired illegally.

In Narok, an officer attached to the Criminal Investigations Department said the police have been investigating the Mau land acquisition irregularities for several years, but no one has been charged.

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