Kenya: Indigenous Sengwer say Western conservation funding will lead to “genocide“

June 30, 2022

Kenya Forest Service guards burning Sengwer houses in Embobut forest, 10 July 2020. ©  Elias Kimaiyo

In a letter released today by Survival International, the Sengwer people from Kenya appeal to the Western public “to stop funding conservation projects that are stealing our land and destroying our life… If you want to do conservation, the first thing you must do is to secure land tenure for us, the Sengwer, and other Indigenous Peoples. Without our rights respected there can’t be any forest left.”

“This model of nature protection that you fund comes from colonial times and will lead to genocide… We urge you to stop funding violations of Indigenous ways of life, which are sustainable and respectful of the environment. Instead, work with us to protect our forest, by protecting our rights. And this not only for us, the Sengwer, but for all communities in Kenya and also in the rest of the world.”

The letter follows days of violence in Loliondo, N. Tanzania, as the authorities try to evict thousands of Maasai people to make way for trophy hunting and luxury tourism.

This appeal is echoed by Indigenous people from across East Africa who are speaking out against racist and colonial conservation projects.

The Frankfurt Zoological Society, The Nature Conservancy and other big conservation organizations, as well as the EU, and the German, French and US governments, are major funders of conservation programs that involve the creation and support of Protected Areas on the ancestral lands of Indigenous Peoples, who are then evicted and abused.

Among the Indigenous people denouncing the impact of conservation projects on their lives are:

• The Borana (Kenya): A Borana man told Survival: “I’m asking the world, the whole world who are donating money to Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), kindly as humans, don’t bother about my color, don’t mind about my religion, but as a human being, we are tortured, we are colonized the second time, we are dying… we ask you to stop these donations to NRT. If you are human, if you are really human, please stop this.”

• The Maasai (Tanzania): A Maasai elder says: “Your money is poison to us.” “Conservation is always bad. In Maasai culture we need an open area for cattle. But since conservation started they push us into small areas and that  made a number of cattle die.” “Out of all the enemies in the world, FZS is the number one enemy of the Maasai. Because it is responsible for all Maasai evictions since we left Serengeti. They came with their ideas and their money. In Ngorongoro too, and now in this 1500km2 of land (Loliondo). Since I left Serengeti, I lost many important things. I lost Serengeti. The plains, such a good land for grazing. I loved it”.

• The Enderois (Kenya): A man who was evicted in 1973 for conservation said: “The life before was good. We had a lot of animals and our life was not restricted. Then the government came and said this has to be a conservation area and we experienced inhumanity. We were forced to go by the police and we didn’t know where to go. We were told that the role of the government was looking after wildlife and not after humans. But we were not killing the animals, we were conserving them.”

• The Ogiek (Kenya): “The government said that by evicting the communities it’s a way to restore the forest. But if the forest was left to the Ogiek, it wouldn’t be destroyed. The forest is where we belong, where there are a lot of things on which we depend.”

The recent brutality at Loliondo, when an estimated 31 Maasai were wounded and thousands fled, has prompted Survival International and the Oakland Institute to write to UNESCO and the IUCN, urging them to de-list Ngorongoro as a World Heritage Site, and to sever all ties between them and the Tanzanian government.

Fiore Longo of Survival International said today: “It’s clear now more than ever that the abuses and land theft in the name of conservation are not just being committed by “a few bad apples” – these are built into the system. If we want to save biodiversity we must respect Indigenous land rights, and fight against this colonial and racist model of conservation. As world leaders are pushing to turn 30% of the Earth into Protected Areas at the next CBD meeting in December, now is the time to let them know that this proposal is a catastrophe for tribes, for nature and for all humanity.”