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Participatory Mapping as a tool to secure Sengwer Indigenous Land Rights and promote Sengwer conservation knwoledge and practices

The Sengwer Indigenous People have created detailed maps of their ancestral land as part of their community efforts to secure land tenure rights in the Cherang'any Hills ecosystem - Elias Kimaiyo
Published : February 6, 2022

In January 2019, me and other representatives of the Sengwer came together for a community mapping workshop led by Tom Rowley (a GIS expert from FPP) in Eldoret to create detailed maps of our ancestral land and trace out the zonation areas described in our by-laws, which set out specific activities permitted in the various parts of Embobut such as habitation, grazing, and rehabilitation.

Initially, we created a list of areas and locations important to us such as sacred sites, swamps, and dwellings. These points, as well as named river and streams, were then located on a 3D terrain model created from sub-meter resolution imagery of Embobut Forest provided by Planet Labs, with supplementary imagery from Google Earth and other sources. Participants then marked all the locations referred to in the Sengwer by-laws and traced areas that were designated for rehabilitation, conservation, sustainable use, grazing, and habitation. 

To supplement this session, fieldwork with handheld GPS units was undertaken to collect data used to check and improve the accuracy of these traced boundaries. The results confirmed the accuracy with which the community had located features of interest on the aerial imagery, while also adding several details that had not been captured during the workshop. Following a few adjustments the map, the map was reviewed by the participants who agreed they felt satisfied with the map drawn so far.  

In July 2019, members of our community re-gathered for a second mapping workshop in Eldoret to supplement and expand upon the map created in January. This time, with the help of data from reports collected by community monitors over the preceding 6 months, the participants were able to identify additional features that were missed during the initial mapping exercise. More precisely, the workshop further allowed our community to expand on some of the mapping of surface water areas, such as rivers and swamps, and validate the boundaries of zonation areas in our by-laws. 

The product of these 6 months of work is a set of detailed maps of Sengwer land inside Embobut forest that has been able to provide officials in the county and national government with visibility into the areas occupied by the Sengwer community. Furthermore, this process helped counter the narrative that the Sengwer were no longer living in Embobut. The maps are also proving essential as the Sengwer build support and compliance with their community by-laws, giving us a visual representation of the standards around conservation and responsible use of land to which we are working to sustain.

Why mapping our lands?

Maps and the process of mapping indigenous land have been – and continue to be – an important tool in determining and defining land access and use for millions of people in Kenya. Starting in the colonial period and up to this day, mapping has had a significant impact on informing land management and land tenure policy in Kenya. In fact, it has made large areas ‘legible’ to national authorities and international agencies who may not have had an extensive knowledge of the ecosystems and environmental features characteristic of such territories. 

Historically, the Sengwer people's ancestral land was mapped and claimed by colonial authorities during the 20th Century and turned into highland farms, while forested areas were designated as protected areas. Unlike other local communities living in and around the Cherang'any Hills ecosystem, the Sengwer were not allocated any reserve land. After Kenya gained its independence in 1963, Sengwer land that had earlier been appropriated by colonial administrators was opened up to other communities. The Sengwer, with no representation in the new government, had little influence and consequently little ability to reclaim this land. The formalisation of land-ownership and land management following Kenya's independence, in fact, gradually eroded the Sengwer people's rights over our customary rights and therefore our capacity and ability to take care of our forests. This process, which started in the 1970s, culminated in continuous government efforts to forcibly remove us from these lands, dispossessing entire communities of their homes and properties and causing long-term impacts on our communities' livelihoods and cultural identity. 

Evictions have recently intensified due to renewed interest in conserving Embobut linked to the launch of the World Bank’s Natural Resource Management Project (NRMP) and subsequently the EU Water Tower Protection and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Project (WaTER). 

In response to the threat of evictions and the risk from continuing environmental degradation of Embobut, the Sengwer are working to create a detailed map of their land as part of the evidence we are gathering to submit our Historical Land Injustice application to Kenya's National Land Commission. This submission is fundamental to formalise our efforts to secure community rights on our customary lands and gain an official mandate to conserve and restore key areas in the forest.