Armed with award-winning app, Kenyan tribe fights forced evictions

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kenya’s Sengwer people will have hi-tech help fighting forced evictions in their forested homeland - an app that will share a $1 million prize announced on Monday by a U.S. philanthropic organization.

Dubbed “This Is My Backyard” (TIMBY), the app was created in Kenya and is being customized with the Sengwer in mind, although it is being used in 25 more countries and works in 11 languages, the developers said.

TIMBY was among five winners of a global competition that awards ideas that address urgent community challenges, according to the Minneapolis-based GHR Foundation, which runs the yearly contest. The winners will share the cash prize.

Anjali Nayar, TIMBY’s founder, said the app’s ability to geo-reference videos, pictures and audio files enables Sengwer people to record and report activities like illegal logging and evictions.

“The people need to have true and verifiable information for journalists, in courts and other circles,” she said.

The Sengwer live in the Cherengany Hills of western Kenya, where they say the Embobut forest is their ancestral land.

The claim has brought them into conflict with the government, which has put policies in place to protect both forest reserves and water catchments in the area.

More than 100 armed Kenya Forest Service guards entered the area last December, firing gunshots, burning homes and killing livestock, according to the United Nations human rights office.

The evictions have persisted despite a court order to halt them, according to Elias Kimaiyo, a Sengwer activist.

He said that using TIMBY would have saved evidence he had collected of forced evictions, which he lost when security forces confiscated his phone and camera in January.

“We are looking at ways on how we can produce credible evidence in courts of law and to forest authorities,” Kimaiyo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

“This app will give us acceptable data that we can share.”

The struggle of the Sengwer illustrates tension between indigenous people and conservation policies excluding them from protected forests around the world.

The TIMBY app was initially designed for communities monitoring land tenure issues in Liberia, said Nayar.

The other winners included Found in Translation, which helps immigrants in the Boston area negotiate the U.S. healthcare system, and Producers Direct, which funds young farmers in east Africa.

War Child, a charity providing cash to youth in war-torn South Sudan, and the My Choices Foundation, which educates Indian women about domestic and child abuse, rounded out the winners selected from more than 675 submissions.