Photo taken on March 27, 2020 shows an empty street after the start of a curfew in Nairobi, Kenya. A countrywide curfew came into effect in Kenya Friday evening to intensify measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. (Xinhua/Li Yan)
Photo taken on March 27, 2020 shows an empty street after the start of a curfew in Nairobi, Kenya. A countrywide curfew came into effect in Kenya Friday evening to intensify measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. (Xinhua/Li Yan)

Representatives of Kenyan indigenous communities on Thursday urged a halt on evictions meant to promote conservation of forests and woodlands amid threats posed by COVID-19.

Peter Kitelo, chairman of a national network for indigenous communities said their relocation from forests and other ancestral lands should be conducted humanely to minimize the risk of coronavirus transmission.

“The indigenous and forest-dwelling communities support the government’s efforts to conserve natural resources but are opposed to forceful evictions that might increase the risk of COVID-19 disease,” Kitelo said during a virtual briefing in Nairobi.

Kenya’s Ministry of Environment in May declared a moratorium on forest evictions to avert the spread of coronavirus among indigenous and nomadic communities spread across north-western counties.

Milka Chepkorir, a representative of Sengwer community that inhabits Embobut forest located in north-western Kenyan highlands said that a halt on forest evictions should be maintained to protect the health of hunter-gatherers and pastoralists.

“The indigenous communities should be empowered to preserve forests which they regard as their ancestral land and part of their heritage,” said Chepkorir.

Evicting them from these indigenous forests is against the constitution and could create a public health crisis when we are in the middle of a pandemic,” She added.

Chepkorir said that indigenous communities have supported state-led intervention to end illegal encroachment of forests amid threat to their livelihoods.

“Sustainable conservation of forests and other major water towers hinges on the involvement of indigenous communities who derive their livelihood from these ecosystems,” said Chepkorir.

Daniel Kobei, a representative of Ogiek who inhabits Kenya’s largest water tower, Mau forest, said that indigenous communities support home-grown initiatives to boost forest conservation as opposed to forceful evictions.

“We have been advocating for greater participation of indigenous communities in the rehabilitation of forests and woodlands. These communities consider indigenous forests as part of their heritage,” said Kobei.

Emily Kinama, a Nairobi-based legal scholar said that protecting the rights of forest dwellers, hunter-gatherers and nomads should inform the development of policies aimed at conserving Kenya’s biodiversity hotspots.

“The indigenous communities should be recognized as primary protectors of forests and other natural resources. Forceful evictions should be avoided because of legal and public health considerations,” said Kinama. Enditem

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