Sengwer people attacked

Conservation as genocide: REDD versus Indigenous rights in Kenya

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Neo-colonial ‘developmentalist’ forces with a green sheen are evicting and murdering people in the guise of conservation and climate change mitigation

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Neo-colonial ‘developmentalist’ forces with a green sheen are evicting and murdering people in the guise of conservation and climate change mitigation

Martin Crook is a PhD candidate and research associate at the Human Rights Consortium School of Advanced Study, University of London, and is on the editorial board of the International Journal of Human Rights. 

Funeral of Robert Kirotich. murdered by the Kenya Forest Service in January

by Martin Crook

Kenya has a long and tragic history of genocide. It seems, the very same ‘modernising’ tendencies embodied in the former British colonial state machine have been imparted to the post-colonial regime. The ‘developmentalist’ forces have re-emerged with a green sheen in the guise of conservation and climate change mitigation.

The EU recently suspended funding for its 31 million Euro Water Towers Protection and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation (WaTER) project in Kenya. After repeated warnings from human rights and civil society organisations in Kenya and around the world, UN experts and the affected Sengwer, the indigenous forest community that live in the Embobut Forest of the Cherangany Hills,  the EU finally acted after the killing, on January 16, of 41-year-old Robert Kirotich, a member of the Sengwer community. He was killed during a raid by the EU-funded Kenya Forestry Service (KFS), mounted in order to ‘clear’ the forests of what the Kenyan government see as illegal squatters, loggers, cattle ranchers and poachers, who it argues are environmentally degrading the Mt. Elgon and the Cherangany Hills, two critical ecosystems for Kenya, vital for water and food security for the region and a host of dependent local species and the nation as a whole. The dangerous and inflammatory rhetoric of the Kenyan government was typified when Kenya’s environment minister declared “there are criminal elements in the forest which must be flushed out.”

The EU move was a belated one not only because many respected conservation and human rights NGOs published urgent appeals, reports and letters, addressed to the Kenyan government warning of a series of forced evictions of members of the Sengwer community by the KFS in December 2017 and January 2018, timed strategically during the holiday period, according to Amnesty International, when the EU would be in recess and the foreign press on holiday. It was a belated move once you consider that the Sengwer had written a letter to the EU as far back as November 2016, only four months after the project began, warning of a history of repeated violations of human rights and mass evictions of the Sengwer (at least 13 such evictions since January 2014) and other indigenous groups from their forest dwellings and destruction of their villages by the KFS.

According to Amnesty International, these forced evictions violate not only the rights of the Sengwer to housing, and to their ancestral lands under international law and according to African Union human rights standards, but also breaches their rights under the 2010 Constitution of Kenya, which recognizes their right to live in their ancestral lands under Article 63.2.d.ii as does the 2016 Community Land Act.

Moreover, the project design and terms of reference for technical assistance laid out in the original tender embodied a model of conservation neo-colonial in its conspicuous lack of any meaningful consultation with the Sengwer and other affected communities. This is a glaring oversight since free, prior and informed consent on development projects that impact indigenous peoples (IPs) is a fundamental right enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), an international instrument which the EU itself pledged to honour in the EU Commission’s Implementing EU External Policy on Indigenous Peoples document, a pledge made in the same year the WaTER project was launched. It also violates the EUs Charter of Fundamental Rights and the 2015 EU Human Rights Action Plan. The terms of reference of WaTER did not even mention the Sengwer or other Forest communities, let alone make any attempt to implement a human rights impact assessment.

In fact, the KFS actions arguably amounts to forced or involuntary population transfers, defined by a report produced by the Council of Europe’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights as “ a practice or policy having the purpose or effect of moving persons into or out of an area, either within or across an international border, or within, into or out of an occupied territory, without the free and informed consent of the transferred population and any receiving population. It involves collective expulsions or deportations and often ethnic cleansing” (emphasis added). The International Criminal Court (ICC) defines it as “compulsory movement of people from one area to another within the same State.” This forced transfer within national borders, often targeting ethnic groups and involving collective punishment, chimes loudly with the forced evictions of Sengwer villagers at gun point and by way of burning down and destroying their villages.

What demotes this long overdue act from belated to positively bovine is the well documented public record of the Kenyan government and the KFS of repeated evictions and human rights violations. Under a previous World Bank funded conservation project funded via the  Natural Resource Management ​Programme (NRMP), started in 2007, the World Bank provided the KFS $64 million dollars to improve “the management of water and forest resources in selected districts.” After initially including provisions that recognised the rights of forest communities like the Sengwer, they were later amended to remove all such references. The project lasted till 2013. Nearly every year of the life’s project saw mass evictions of the Sengwer. The World Bank’s own Inspection Panel found the NRMP guilty of failing to take “the proper steps to address the potential loss of customary rights” and enabling the evictions by failing to adequately identify or address that the institution it was funding, the KFS, was before, during and after the term of the NRMP, committed to mass evictions.

The Report however, ultimately exculpated the World Bank of the evictions directly, despite funding the agency that was responsible. Nevertheless, in the court of public opinion, culpability is clear. The World Bank, just as the EU after them, employed a neo-colonial model of conservation that ignored the rights of forest dwelling indigenous peoples and paid no heed to the devastating impacts the forced mass evictions would have on the viability and survival of their communities.

Yet, despite this prodigious volume of evidence, a statement issued in response to the recent evictions and killing of Robert Kirotich by the EU’s Ambassador, Stefano A. Dejak, claimed “the conservation work on the water towers was never expected to involve any evictions or use of violence.”

Green Accumulation by Dispossession

The World Bank funded NRMP project was notable for another reason. It was part of the ever more complex and convoluted architecture of climate change mitigation, underpinned by the philosophy of ‘market environmentalism’, known as carbon markets, set up by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). More specifically NRMP project falls under the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), first set up at the 13th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC, in Bali, in 2007. This conservation program also set out to expand forest cover and protect ecosystems, only this time in aid of producing what has become known as REDD ‘Offsets’. In essence, the carbon markets work according to a ‘cap and trade’ system, which sets limits on outputs of greenhouse gases and allows countries that are unable to meet their emissions limits to buy the right to pollute from countries that had more successfully limited their emissions or had more successfully lobbied for exemptions to continue polluting. In other words, the atmosphere was to be saved by privatizing it  — it was now a commodity to be traded. From 2009, in the immediate aftermath of the global economic crisis, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) began to push hard for what it called the ‘Global Green New Deal.’ In this new ‘Green Economy,’ ever more spheres of nature  — understood now in the rather perverse market environmentalist lexicon as ‘ecosystem services’ – could be subject to monetary evaluation.

The ostensible logic is that market pressures will incentivize reductions in greenhouse gases (GHGs) so that the surplus can be traded. Moreover, through REDD conservation schemes such as the aforementioned NRPMP project in Kenya, market pressures will preserve forests and other ecosystems which thus absorb or ‘fix’ more CO2 a laudable goal since the destruction of forests is responsible for roughly one-fifth of all carbon emissions.  This in turn generates carbon credits which rewards those who officially maintain the forests through the ‘Payment for Ecosystemic Services’ (PES). The carbon credits are traded, allowing big polluters like corporations or G20 countries  to ‘offset’ their carbon emissions and meet their carbon emissions targets. However, this multibillion dollar industry, conceals a multitude of sins, because the pursuit of a commodified system of abstract, uniform and tradable units of CO2 reduction, demands ‘equivalence’. This equivalence acts like a sleight of hand that does not distinguish between GHG reductions in the developed North or the developing South and consequently allows rich countries to effectively export the task of climate change mitigation and wriggle out of their historical ecological debt, embodied in the ‘common but differentiated Responsibilities’ (CBDR) principle under the UNFCCC. Critically, the major polluters can avoid reducing emissions at source.

The alchemy of commodity equivalence belies another crucial distinction between emissions reductions and mitigation of climate change. Larry Lohmann has argued market preoccupation with price discovery and the cheapest means of delivering CO2 emission reductions engenders piecemeal reductions in the short to medium term rather than root and branch, long term structural transformation needed to achieve a low or non-carbon economy, crucially leaving the political economy of free market capitalism intact and unmolested.

As I and Raj Patel have previously lamented, perhaps the most egregious manifestation of ‘carbon commodity fetishism’ comes in the guise ‘offset’ projects, like the one in Kenya, because they can generate carbon credits on the condition that fewer GHGs are emitted than otherwise would have been the case had the project not been financed. Lohmann offers the example of a coal mine in China that burns off methane escaping the mine, converting into carbon dioxide, which is a less potent GHG and thus through the alchemy of the commodification equation we have generated carbon credits.

Further, offset projects obscure another distinction by way of carbon market alchemy. The carbon fixed by offset projects is not equivalent to carbon trapped in fossil fuels. The former is trapped below the earth’s surface and thus stable whereas carbon stored in ecosystems, above ground, is only temporarily stored, vulnerable to climatic changes and weather events or man-made processes such as forest fires, droughts or flooding, cleared to facilitate mining and the like.

It is these kind of abuses, elisions and distortions and the very opacity of the carbon commodity form that problematize the efficacy of carbon markets as tools of climate change mitigation. In a briefing produced by the Rain Forest Foundation on carbon markets and REDD, the NGO argued:

“Potential REDD emissions reductions credits may not represent genuine reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, due to inflated baselines and leakage. Trading them in an offset market could lead to increased total global carbon emissions, and prolong existing heavily polluting activities.”

In fact, the commodity form is remarkably good at blindsiding us to many things, including nature’s contribution, as Marx, ecologist avant la letter so eloquently explained.

The recent EU funded WaTER project may not have been officially in aid of forest carbon offsets, but the direction of travel is clear. In a strategic plan for 2016-2020, published after the ending of the controversial World Bank offset project in the Embobut Forest and Cherangany Hills, the Kenya Water Towers Agency (KWTA) argued that the Mau forest complex could only be protected by moving from what they call a ‘single-asset’ system which only values it as a resource base to a ‘multiple-asset’ approach,

“which recognizes the wide variety of values of this ecosystem and diversifies revenue streams by capitalizing on ecosystem values, thereby maximizing both conservation and economic returns on the investment.

Further on in the report, after listing off the various ‘environmental goods and services’ the Mau complex water towers provide, carbon storage is clarified as having “particular importance from the standpoint of potential benefits from emerging global carbon markets.”

In May 2017, the self-defined ‘non-profit scientific research organization’, The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), launched, alongside their partners, a three-year project on the conservation of Kenyan water towers. Their main research focus is on the management of tropical forests. One particular component of their research is what they call ‘Environmental services and landscape management’ which essentially promotes mechanisms like PES and monetary valuation of nature more generally. Among their partners for the Kenyan water towers project include the now infamous KFS and the KWTA. Buried at the very end of the document detailing the proceedings of a workshop, under a section titled Suggestions for Areas of Collaboration, the CIFOR list “Payment for Ecosystem (PES) Model: KEFRI is working on PES as a business model, which investors can adopt”.

Whether they are directly tied to the global carbon markets or not, the invariably neo-colonial model of conservation that is employed flies in the face of modern conservation science, which has empirically demonstrated that denying the collective land tenure rights of the traditional owner-conservators only increases the likelihood that the ecosystems in question will be exploited by illegal loggers, farmers and the like and this actually leads to an increase in ecological destruction. Justin Kenrick, a senior policy advisor at Forest Peoples Programme argued recently, in response to calls for the Finnish government to end its funding of the KFS on another conservation project,

“Conservation science is clear that securing the collective land rights of such indigenous forest communities, communities who have cared for their lands for centuries, is the surest way of securing such forests and the flow of water from them to Kenya.”

Moreover, the role traditional owner-conservators play could prove crucial in our ability to survive and adapt to climate change. As Paul Havemann points out, “indigenous peoples protect and care for 22% of the earth’s surface containing 80% of its biodiversity and 90% of the Earth’s cultural and linguistic diversity”. It is now taken for granted among ethnobiologists, scientists who study the relationship, across time and cultures, between people, animal and plant life and their environments, that biodiversity and cultural diversity are interlinked and interdependent. According to Rose Johnston, the critical observation to emphasise here is that cultural diversity is humanity’s primary adaptive mechanism.

What the REDD offset projects do achieve, however, is accumulation of vast amounts of ‘green’ capital for investors — one recent valuation by the World Bank, put the total value of the carbon market industry at US$52 billion — and, on the flip side, the dispossession of indigenous people’s land, all in the service of conservation and climate change mitigation, despite the evidence and the science pointing to further ecological degradation as a result. Moreover, the carbon credits generated by these projects allow the rich industrialized North to continue to pollute at source and maintain ‘business as usual’.

The political economy of climate change mitigation has engendered a rich lexicon to describe this neo-colonial relation of power: ‘carbon colonialism’, ‘carbon grab’ and even ‘green grabbing’. In essence “while colonialists took land to extract resources, conservationists take land to preserve it.” One paper in the Journal of Peasant Studies defined green grabbing as “the appropriation of land and resources for environmental ends”. The authors argue that this form of land alienation in the name of carbon sequestration, is part of a history of colonial and neo-colonial expropriation in the name of the environment, linking it to a broader cluster of conservation efforts such the gazetting of national and wildlife parks, forest reserves and the prevention of assumed destructive local practises.

Greenwashed Relations of Genocide

A recent study of a similar ‘offset’ project in Kenya’s neighbour Uganda, in the Bulakeba and Kachung districts, run by Norwegian company Green Resources, found local communities were disenfranchised and dispossessed and their access to food and water restricted, in order to orchestrate a land grab in aid of the conservation programme. The study found that the stated environmental targets were not met. Among the abuses committed by what the lead author of the report, Kristen Lyons, called the ‘darker side’ of the green economy, were the destruction of homes to make way for the monoculture plantations, planting trees on community land, confiscation of animals and forcing the local villagers to farm on ecologically sensitive land. The villagers had lost the primary means of income, access to medicine and firewood and water for their farm animals.

The environmentally, socially and culturally destructive pattern found in the forest plantation project in Uganda, where indigenous and place-based peoples have been evicted from the land they have lived on for centuries, denied access to food, medicinal plants, firewood, the right to hunt or farm, has been poignantly dubbed ‘fortress conservation’. The destructive pattern strikes a familiar and menacing chord with KFS actions in the Embobut Forest and Cherangany Hills in Kenya. Recall that the Sengwer have suffered forced mass evictions that properly understood, can only be described as a ‘scorched earth’ policy of ethnic cleansing, (which falls under the legal definition of genocide), which violently severs the community from its means of material subsistence, its medicine, its cultural identity, its mode of life. In a press briefing held by the Sengwer community in Nairobi on January 4, Milka Chepkoir, a Sengwer activist said:

“We have repeatedly experienced forced evictions at the hands of KFS. Its wardens have regularly burned our homes, along with stores of food, blankets, school uniforms, and books. Over the years, they have made thousands of our people homeless in what at night can be a cold highland to have no home.”

In a report written by Chepkoir on the impact these evictions have had on Sengwer women, she documents sexual abuse, psychological torture and extreme poverty. The evictions and destruction of their homes, she argues, have a disproportionate impact on women since in Sengwer culture it is these space that are normally occupied by women and children.

As a result of the evictions and wholesale destruction of villages, men have left to find new land and build new homes for their families. This has undermined family life and according to Chepkoir, led to the breakdown of the clan and kinship system, and traditional rules that govern marriage and other cultural practices. This is genocide in all but name.

As Damien Short and I have argued, in the view of Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin, the originator of the concept of genocide, genocide should not be conflated with simply mass killings, although it may be a rather effective technique that achieves the same end. For Lemkin, genocide was the destruction of what he termed the ‘essential foundations’ of a group or ‘genos’. The etymology of the word ‘genocide’ stems from his seminal text ‘Axis Rule in Occupied Europe’. Lemkin combined the Greek word genos meaning ‘tribe’ or ‘race’ and the Latin ‘cide’ meaning ‘killer’. Lemkin sought to identify and understand the unique crime of genocide by recognising that its principle target was not necessarily the members of a particular genos, but the group itself. It was an assault on the very edifice of the group, made up of political, social, economic, biological, physical, religious moral and above all cultural dimensions, dimensions that reflected the may-sided totality of group life itself and ensured the integrity of the group.

These eight dimensions or structures were according to Lemkin, interdependent and indivisible, such that an attack on one could lead to the collapse and destruction of the genos as a whole and cause what the philosopher Claudia Card called ‘social death’. It was, moreover, these eight structures that logically translated into techniques of genocide, techniques that were employed by the Nazis in occupied Europe and exhaustively documented By Lemkin in Axis Rule. Lemkin’s understanding of genocide didn’t stop there. Lemkin was well aware that invariably throughout history, genocide was inextricably bound up with colonisation, arguing genocide  involved a two-fold process of destruction of the group life of indigenous populations and their replacement by what he called the ‘national pattern’ of the colonizers.

For Lemkin and many in the school of genocide studies since, culture is the key structure of any social group, the glue that holds the it together. It is the unit of collective memory and thus sustains intergenerational relationships. Securing the group’s structural integrity and ultimately its physical well-being; it is in essence that which animates the genos. Therefore, forms of cultural destruction will result in the liquidation of the social group just as surely as mass killings – It is central to the evil of genocide even if physical destruction is involved. After all, Nazi genocidal techniques were not confined to physical destruction, as Lemkin’s book demonstrates.

When land and ecosystems are bound up with the culture of a genos, as they invariably are where territorially bounded indigenous and placed-based peoples like the Sengwer are concerned, dispossession, or ‘domicide’, involuntary population transfers, ethnic cleansing and their corollary ecological destruction, whether ostensibly in the name of conservation or not, degrades and destroys the ‘national’ pattern of the indigenous group and drives ‘social death’. In its place: the green-washed socio-economic and cultural ‘pattern’ of a phalanx of international conservation NGOs, international financial and political institutions and colonial state machines. The modern manifestation of the two-fold process of genocide, a crucial part of what I call the political economy of genocide, involves extra-economic processes of plunder or theft that alienate social groups from their lands; processes such as the gazetting of national or wildlife parks or conservation areas. The ‘enclosures’ often entail private or state property regimes that invariably deny the collective common law tenure rights of the traditional owner-conservators.

It is this process, dubbed ‘accumulation by dispossession’, that is at the heart of so many modern conservation schemes — and it is the essence of colonisation. As the great historian of colonialism Patrick Wolfe observed “territoriality is settler colonialism’s specific, irreducible element.” The political-economic processes evidenced in the EU and World Bank projects for conservation in Kenya and elsewhere, necessarily involve what Paul Havemann and the Native American Scholar Glen Coulthad have described as the “‘creative destruction’ of pre-capitalist [indigenous] ecological-political orders.”

The (neo) colonial relation therefore should be understood as ecologically-induced genocide. There is now a burgeoning ‘ecological turn’ in Genocide Studies that acknowledges the material ‘extra-human environment’ as critical to the biological and cultural integrity of distinct social groups, particularly culturally and ecologically vulnerable indigenous and placed-based groups who are subject to an array of ecological and cultural genocidal coercive pressures such as land grabs in the service of economic development projects or the service of conservation and the environment. To indigenous and place-based peoples, land embodies their ‘historical narrative’, their ‘practises, rituals and traditions’, as well as their political and economic cohesion. In short, As Wolfe astutely observed ‘Land is life’. I’ll leave the last word to the Sengwer. In a recent correspondence with me, the Sengwer activist Elias Kimaiyo affirmed: “Sengwer and the Forests are one and inseparable”.