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Traditional knowledge is helping safeguard the future of Kenya’s threatened forests


I remember it like it was yesterday. Several years ago we were engaged in a meeting with the indigenous Aweer community discussing their rights in relation to natural resources. The Aweer, traditionally hunter-gatherers, live in Boni Dodori, a part of Kenya which is home to a rich array of wildlife. We’d been discussing at length why the community needed to advocate to the government to protect their lands and natural resources. These are under immense pressure from, amongst other things, infrastructure development in the area, and the resulting population influx.

Camera trap image of an Aders’ duiker from the forests of Boni-Dodori. Recent mammal surveys suggest that the area is a stronghold for this Critically Endangered species © WWF / ZSLCamera trap image of an Aders’ duiker from the forests of Boni-Dodori. Recent mammal surveys suggest that the area is a stronghold for this Critically Endangered species © WWF / ZSL

Suddenly, an elderly female member of the community stood up. Initially we paid little attention, thinking she was just moving seats. But then it became clear she was making a bee-line for the front of the room, with her hand raised and a point to make.

She then gave one of the most impassioned speeches that I have ever heard.

She spoke about the strong and intricate links between the lives of the community and the adjacent forest. She also explained that since time immemorial the Aweer have had communal access to the forests for a variety of purposes related to both their livelihoods and cultural identity.  Forest product such as tubers, roots, medicinal plants, wild fruits, water and honey provide much need livelihoods whilst sacred groves in forest are used for traditional ceremonies.

Aweer woman weaving © WWF KenyaAweer woman weaving © WWF Kenya

Traditionally, selected elders have supervised how the people use the forests, through a system based on customary rules and regulations. Those breaking the rules face penalties and as a consequence haphazard forest destruction has been rare.

Finally, she reminded us that traditional uses and practices, both material and spiritual, have led to extensive indigenous knowledge, which is just as important as scientific knowledge and highly relevant to conservation efforts. Ensuring that the main root of a herbal plant isn’t extracted when collecting plants for medicinal use so that the plant doesn’t die, and not settling or farming in areas which are important wild animal corridors were just a few of the examples she gave which have clear overlap with conservation efforts.

Sisters from the Aweer community © WWF KenyaSisters from the Aweer community © WWF Kenya

Harnessing traditional knowledge to protect forests

Generally, the traditional rules and regulations adhered to by the Aweer have not been documented but instead kept alive through ongoing application and word of mouth. Through WWF’s work however, we’ve tried to document some of this indigenous knowledge and harness its value to improve conservation efforts and ensure that the Aweer have a strong voice in decisions affecting how the forests and other natural resources are managed.

We’ve repeatedly come to realise that our work and traditional use of the forest share a common priority: sustainability!

For centuries, traditional knowledge and practices have been used to ensure that forests continue to provide benefits for now, and for future generations.  This includes tangible benefits such as food and medicine as well as non-tangible benefits such as spiritual and psychological health.

But these systems are under increasing pressure from threats such as poorly planned development which is leading to significant loss of both forests and the species that depend on them.

Supporting the community

We’re working hard to rally behind the Aweer community to promote and support the role of culture in sustainable forest management. Similar work is under way on the south Kenyan coast.

A key part of our work is to continue to improve our understanding of traditional knowledge and practices and help make sure that decision makers know about it, to support efforts to protect the forests and the natural environment. As well as speaking to decision makers directly, we help the Aweer share this message themselves. We’re also working with the National Museums of Kenya to try and get the Aweer’s sacred forests recognised as National Monuments. This will help to offer these forests – and the cultural heritage that they represent – a greater level of protection.

You can support our work through Size of Wales in Kenya by making a donation today.

We wish to acknowledge and thank the financial support offered by Size of Wales and the UK government through the DEFRA/DFID Darwin Initiative and DFID’s PPA with WWF-UK.

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