Strengthening Livelihoods Secures Future for Forest

In Focus, April 2005

by Ben Jolliffe

Integrating modern and traditional conservation in Kenya’s Kaya Kinondo forest is a challenge, one that can even involve community consultation with oracles or foretellers.

So when more than 250 people recently gathered to celebrate the opening of a new visitor center and community bank in the village of Kinondo, it was clear that years of research, planning, community engagement and hard work had finally paid off.

Local conservationists, mothers and their children, businessmen, tour operators and government officials all gathered round to see the ribbon cut and the door of the bank officially open as the first stage of a project funded by the Ford Foundation and the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) drew to a close.

For Kimaru Elias, it was very encouraging to see them all. As a tourist officer from the Coastal Forest Conservation Unit (CFCU) of the National Museums of Kenya, he has been behind the project from the start. "We’ve taken over $7,000 in for the project [from tourism proceeds] since April last year and almost everyone here has helped to bring that money in," he said.

Havens for Life

The natural history of the Kayas is remarkably rich. These high biodiversity forest and woodland cover areas of between eight and 80 hectares in the coastal plains and hills of Kenya, forming reservoirs of extraordinary life.

Three hundred years ago, many of them were used as havens by the nine tribes of the Mijikenda, fleeing from their Southern Somalian homelands. Thereafter, they became sacred sites and were used as burial grounds and places for ritual and prayer.

Taboos prohibited the cutting and removal of trees and other forest vegetation within the Kayas. So while tribesmen cleared areas of surrounding land for agricultural use, these central areas have remained, conserving an important ecological heritage.

Despite its small area of 30 hectares, Kaya Kinondo has a record of 187 plant species of which two are unique to the region: the Endangered Ziziphus robertsoniana and an undescribed species only known from Kinondo and one nearby forest. The forest is also rich in fauna with more than 48 bird species recorded in the area, of which two are endemic and one Threatened, while local mammals include the Endangered Zanj elephant shrew (Rhynchocyon petersi).

Thanks to early action by the National Museums of Kenya, the kayas were gazetted and designated as National Monuments in 1992 – a move that helped alleviate serious threats such as property development while allowing community use for specific activities, such as medicinal plant collection. Until recently, however, the forests suffered further losses due to a lack of sustainable conservation and management.

Protected by the Community

To help save Kaya Kinondo by linking its conservation to the social and economic welfare of its people, the CFCU of the National Museums of Kenya, WWF East Africa and members of the local community jointly founded Kaya Kinondo Conservation and Development Group in 2001. The group now has three permanent staff and about 2,500 members, most of whom are from the two villages that lie near the protected forest area.

Elias "Kim" Kimaru has been working in the area for five years and successfully approached CEPF last year for further funding to help connect conservation management in the Kinondo region with tangible social and economic benefits for local people.

He has spent considerable time working with the Kaya Elders of the Digo tribe, learning about their myriad beliefs and customs and trying to marry these up with the demands of a contemporary conservation project.

"It has been an extraordinary experience," said Kim, who comes from Kenya’s Central Province. "The Elders manage the kayas under very strict rules and regulations and so before we could even consider what kind of project they would be willing to participate in, I had to understand their way of life, their traditions."

Conservation by Taboo

Originally, the whole community would have lived within a central clearing for protection and safety. The few paths through the forest were guarded and kept secret and villagers stuck to them to avoid disturbing vegetation.

Cutting trees, grazing livestock, and collecting or removing other forest material was strictly forbidden, although the collection of medicinal plants and the use of forest materials to build ritual structures were allowed. Those who broke the rules typically paid a fine of livestock or fowl.

Tradition continues today, as Kim found to his cost. “When we were clearing some paths, I asked someone from another community to come and help clear some rocks. Unknown to me, the Elders were keenly observing our activities. I was summoned and fined a goat!” he said. "Luckily, I didn't have to pay it all myself but still, you think you’re just clearing a path, when the reality can be completely different."

The concept of time for Kaya Elders differs no less radically. Even decisions on apparently straightforward matters, such as redigging wells, may require consultations with oracles or foretellers, sometimes at great distances from Kinondo.

"The Elders wanted to consult a number of different sources – some even in Tanzania," Kim said. "In the end, six months after our proposal was [put forward], the foretellers disagreed with it. The well has not been cleared to date."

Grant Aids Training and Teaching

But important progress is being made. As community representative Hemed Mwafujo explained in a speech marking the opening of the bank and the visitor center, paid tourist excursions to Kaya Kinondo are now underway and the proceeds are supporting community projects.

“With experience now, we would like to tell our fellow Kenyans that conservation of the environment is very important as it now attracts tourists unlike in the past when people used to visit only national parks,” Mwafujo said.

Aside from the tourist center, finally completed with funds from CEPF grant support that began in October, a tree nursery has been established for farm woodlots, forest rehabilitation, and commercial tree seedling production.

A Web site is under construction and marketing materials - including 2,000 brochures, posters, t-shirts, sign boards and a newsletter - have been distributed to hotels in the nearby resort of Diani to encourage more visitors to the project.

Talks in local schools have been well attended, reaching more than 300 children, and training for bilingual guides has started, while women in the community are learning how to make neem and aloe products for visitors, including oils, shampoo, herbal tea and muscle cramp ointment, as well as medicated soap, mosquito repellants, and candles.

Quentin Luke of the National Museums of Kenya has been particularly impressed with the efforts of the CFCU team and is optimistic about the future of the project. "Now that visitors are flocking back to the area, there are good prospects for the Kinondo venture to become self-financing," he said.

"It should lead the way in demonstrating that preserving the past need not depend on donors. Thus there is a chance that the many other priceless Mjikenda Kayas can be saved for future generations by similar projects."