Conflict Between Conservation and Indigenous Traditions
Covering a 54,000-acre swath of rolling hills in western Kenya, Embobut is one of the country’s last intact mountain forests. It’s a vital watershed. The hills capture rain clouds, which feed rivers, which flow downhill to supply thousands of smallholder and commercial maize farms in Kenya’s breadbasket. The forest is also home to several thousand Sengwer, a hunter-gatherer ethnic minority.
Embobut looks like a place frozen in prehistory, or lifted from Dr. Seuss. Ancient trees tower over carpets of grass; strange fluorescent flowers mingle with twisted vines and ferns; crystal-clear creeks crash through boulders.
But the beauty belies an undercurrent of controversy. The forest has become a flashpoint in a debate about indigenous peoples’ land rights ― and the trouble that can ensue when those rights conflict with the country’s strategy for fighting climate change.
The Sengwer have lived in this forest for generations, building simple wooden houses, and keeping bees for honey and livestock for milk and meat. The population is spread over a large area, and signs of their presence are few. Without a guide, a visitor could walk for hours and only encounter occasional cows.