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Kaya forests – a Kenyan example of indigenous peoples’ and community conserved areas


Many indigenous communities hold a very close relationship with nature, and have done so for millennia, often using traditional governance and management systems to promote harmonious co-existence between people and the environment.

The relationship between indigenous communities and nature is much richer than any words can truly express, but it’s clear that it’s often a source of their identity and heritage, and it can determine how they relate with the outside world. Nature, and the relationship with it, forms the basis on which many indigenous communities learn, identify values and develop self-dignity as well as being a place for spiritual nourishment.

The places where indigenous and local communities govern and manage their resources, where culture and biological diversity have often evolved together, are globally known as indigenous peoples’ and community conserved areas (ICCAs). Today, there are many thousand ICCAs across the world and the Kaya sacred forests of the Mijikenda peoples of coastal Kenya are a classic example.

Meeting members of an indigenous community.Me (second from left) Meeting members of an indigenous community. © Elias Kimaru / WWF

Bringing communities together

As part of efforts to strengthen understanding of the ICCAs that are still remaining in Southern and Eastern Africa, I recently participated in a regional meeting in Namibia which brought together representatives related to ICCAs from Namibia, South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania, Kenya and Liberia, amongst others. Representatives included indigenous peoples and local communities involved in the governance and management of ICCAs, relevant government agencies, supporting civil society organisations, and members of the United Nations Development Programme. We supported key Kenya colleagues to attend and it was gratifying to see Kaya forests being identified as important ICCAs which must be emulated, protected and promoted.

With your support, we’ve been working for nearly 20 years to promote the conservation of Kaya forests in Kenya. This in turn has helped to conserve biodiversity, making the Kaya forests some of the richest havens of plants and animals in the world. In recognition of their cultural importance, Kaya forests were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2008.

Continued threats to the forests

But despite our and the Mijikenda community’s efforts and international recognition, the pressures on Kaya forests continue to increase and are exceeding the community’s ability to cope. Sadly, when it comes to the conservation of ICCAs, the Mijikenda community are not exceptional in this situation.

Many indigenous communities hold a very close relationship with natureMany indigenous communities hold a very close relationship with nature. © Elias Kimaru / WWF

In Kwale and neighbouring Kilifi, threats often stem from economic development in the region which can infringe on ICCAs. This development includes infrastructure, oil and gas projects, mining (both small scale and large scale), and the expansion of agriculture (both small-scale practice and large scale mono-agricultural projects). Erosion of cultural values, attributed to the younger generation who view traditional belief systems as outdated, is also a problem which is exacerbated by limited support from the government for effective management of Kaya forests.

The knowledge sharing event in Namibia provided a platform to enhance the capacity of key regional actors to promote and strengthen ICCAs. During the meeting we developed strategies to enhance the effectiveness of ICCAs in Kenya, including the Kaya forests. Some of the key actions planned include building the capacity of traditional management systems and institutions, establishing regional and national networks for ICCAs, creating awareness of ICCAs, and influencing policy change to support ICCA protection at local and national level.

We hope that the strategies will help to ensure the continued protection of biodiversity and cultural practices, as well as support the improvement of community wellbeing. With your continued support, we can help the Mijikenda community to actively protect their cultural heritage, their identity and thereby conserve much of Kenya’s rich biodiversity.

Our work in Kwale, Kenya is made possible thanks to Size of Wales – find out more on the Size of Wales website.

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