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Helping communities protect globally important forests


Some of the most precious forests in coastal east Africa are under threat – and with the support of Size of Wales, we’ve been stepping up efforts to save them.

The Kaya forests are rich in wildlife (Photo: Cath Lawson / WWF)The Kaya forests are rich in wildlife (Photo: Cath Lawson / WWF)

The Mijikenda sacred forests or ‘Kayas’ of Kenya’s coast have immense cultural, religious and traditional value. People go to these forests to pray, appease ancestral spirits and bury the dead. Along Kenya’s coast there are over 50 such forest sites.

This in turn has helped conserve a vast range of plants and animals. The result is that these forests are biologically hugely important too.

Over 550 plants and over 50 animals in Kenya’s coastal forests occur nowhere else on Earth.

The international community has recognised the Kayas as having global significance and of being of outstanding universal value. 43 sites are formally recognised as National Monuments. And in 2008, 10 sites were placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List under the World Heritage Convention.

They’re celebrated for showing how cultural values can help to conserve natural heritage.

Today, these forests represent true living Museums of people’s culture, history and traditions.

So it’s sad these forests still face major threats.

One of the major challenges is land ownership. Previous governments gave some of the Kaya forest land to private individuals. In addition, some boundaries of Kaya forests have no boundary markers, making it harder to protect them.

Although the forest within individual Kayas is still intact, the situation is dire. 

National-Museums-of-Kenya-official-showing-a-map-of-one-of-the-Kaya-forest--which-have-been-subdivided-into-small-potions-of-land-Elias-Kimaru-picNational Museums of Kenya official. He’s holding a map of one of the Kaya forests which have been subdivided into small potions of land. (Photo: Elias Kimaur / WWF)

They only stand today as forests due to community protection and national laws which outlaw defacing of a national monument.

The forests face huge pressure. There are growing interests in mining and tourism development, an increasing population, and demands for land for farming and urban development.

Without title deeds for the land and with unclear boundaries, it’s hard to guarantee that the forests will be safe from development.

With WWF’s support, Kaya communities are now taking advantage of the provisions of Kenya’s new constitution and land reforms, to demand for a return of their ancestral land.

We’ve facilitated public debate on the issue and helped to generate high profile national media attention. The communities have also developed a petition, targeting government agencies that deal with land issues and the conservation of these forests.

By ensuring better protection for these areas, we will ensure that close to 300 Ha of sacred Mijikedna Kaya forests are conserved future generations.

What do you think about the future of these forests? Are you optimistic we can protect them? Let us know in the comments below.

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