By Andrew Wasike and Magdalene Mukami
The European Union on Wednesday suspended a €31 million ($37 million) conservation project with Kenya after a man was shot dead by forest guards who were attempting to evict members of an indigenous community.
The six-year project, launched in June 2016, is aimed at protecting ground supplies of water, known as water towers, in the Mount Elgon and Cherangani Hills areas of Kenya.
Embobut Forest in western Kenya has become a center of focus over land rights amid ongoing efforts by officials of the Kenya Forest Service to evict members of the indigenous Sengwer community from their ancestral land in a bid to protect the forest’s biodiversity.
On Tuesday, forest service officers shot and killed a herder in the forest while injuring at least two others while evicting a section of the community, sparking outrage.
Speaking to journalists in Nairobi, EU Ambassador Stefano Dejak said the EU had warned Kenyan security forces against using excessive force against the Sengwer community.
"Yesterday's shooting took place after we had formally alerted Kenya's government that the use of force by Kenya Forest Service guards in Embobut Forest or elsewhere against innocent locals would lead the EU to suspend its financial support for conservation work on the country's water towers," Dejak said.
"Accordingly, we are now suspending support to the Water Towers Programme with the government of Kenya."
Dejak condemned the killing of the herder and the shooting of other people from the community.
In a statement responding to the suspension of the funds over indigenous human rights violations, Elias Kimaiyo from the Sengwer community said "this is the beginning of the first step in our land rights struggles. If they had listened to us, and we have been crying for a long time, then this would not have happened, and the funds could have been used in a constructive way to help conservation and not used in a violent way for human rights violations. That they are suspending this money is good news."
The slain herder has been identified as 41-year-old Robert Kirotich.
The Sengwer are a group of hunters and gatherers who depend solely on the Embobut Forest for sustenance. One of the last forest-dwelling communities in the East African country, they are believed to number around 33,000, according to Kenya's 2009 census.