Establishing a biocultural heritage territory to protect Kenya’s Kaya forests

This project aims to protect biodiversity and improve livelihoods in the Mijikenda’s sacred Kaya forest landscapes in Kenya. It will establish a biocultural heritage territory that empowers Kaya elders to enforce traditional conservation rules and promote agroecological practices.

October 2020 - October 2023
Krystyna Swiderska

Principal researcher and team leader (biocultural heritage), IIED's Natural Resources research group

Conservation, communities and equity
A programme of work showing how IIED is building capacity to understand and implement equitable conservation and enhance community voice in conservation policymaking
A large group of people sit on the floor in the shade from a tree

Rabai Cultural Village (Photo: Krystyna Swiderska, IIED)

The Mijikenda’s sacred Kaya forests along the coast of Kenya are the sites of former fortified villages, known as kayas. They form part of a global biodiversity hotspot and are revered as sacred ancestral sites by the Indigenous Mijikenda people.

They have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for their cultural significance, and are protected by the National Museums and Heritage Act but managed by Mijikenda communities (‘co-management’). 

The Rabai community (a Mijikenda sub-tribe) maintains a traditional governance system for its four gazetted Kaya forests. A Council of Elders oversees traditional conservation rules that protect the Kaya forests and encourage agrobiodiversity conservation and agroecological farming practices in the surrounding areas. 

However, the Kaya forests are experiencing significant degradation and illegal encroachment – particularly for firewood and charcoal production.  

This threatens endangered trees, wild foods and crop relatives (eg. cowpeas), and rare wildlife such as butterflies and the endangered golden-rumped elephant shrew (Rhynchocyon chrysopygus), which is only found in Rabai’s Kaya forest and the Arabuko Sokoke Forest. Forest degradation, along with climate change, is also leading to drying up of essential water sources.  

Indigenous open-pollinated crops that are climate-resilient, low-input and nutritious (eg. cowpeas, sorghum, millets) have declined significantly due to the promotion of monocultures and the weakening of the traditional institutions that previously governed the whole landscape.  

The project aims to reduce Kaya forest degradation and biodiversity loss by strengthening Kaya elders’ institutions and establishing alternative sustainable livelihoods and fuel sources for local people. 

The project will support a process to establish a collectively governed biocultural heritage territory (BCHT) that empowers Kaya elders to enforce traditional conservation rules and strengthens cultural values and the community's commitment to conserving Kaya forests as cultural heritage.  

The process will be community led and highly participatory to create strong community ownership and revitalise traditional knowledge. It will use decolonial approaches, methods and tools, inspired by the successful Potato Park in Peru. 

The successful ‘Rabai Cultural Village’, which engages around 1,500 community members (80% women) in 26 microenterprises, will be scaled out to a further three Kayas to support community enterprises, promote cultural revitalisation and exploit Rabai’s significant eco-tourism potential.

The project will offer multiple benefits for sustainable livelihoods of 3,200 poor people. Forest-dependent women and young people from 1,600 households will get training to produce and market value-added products such as honey, palm brooms, baskets and coconut oil. Branded products will be sold in local markets and cities (via bulk buyers), and a percentage of the profits from the sales will go to support conservation activities.  

Women and young people will also be trained to produce fuel-efficient stoves and stoves will be installed in 800 forest-dependent households. Endangered trees will be restored in Kaya forests and on-farm along with hardy Indigenous crops. 

The project will help protect and restore biodiversity – including endangered trees, elephant-shrews, butterflies and Indigenous vegetables – in the Rabai community’s Kaya forests (covering 580ha) and surrounding farmland (covering around 14,000ha).  

What is IIED doing? 

The Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) will co-lead the project and coordinate local day-to-day implementation working with Rabai Cultural Village.   

IIED will provide guidance for establishing a collectively governed biocultural heritage territory, using decolonial action-research methods and tools, and building on the Potato Park experience. 

The institute has previously supported the emergence of the successful Potato Park Biocultural Heritage Territory for agrobiodiversity and wildlife conservation in Peru, working with Asociacion ANDES. We are now supporting its wider adoption and adaptation by other communities within Peru, and in China, India and Kenya. 

IIED will advise on promoting sustainable livelihoods through the production, marketing and branding of biocultural products, and will provide guidance on revitalising cultural values, agrobiodiversity and agroecological practices, including through biocultural farmer field schools. We will also provide project management, reporting, and monitoring and evaluation. 

Additional resources

Video: Establishing a biocultural heritage territory to protect Kenya’s Kaya Forests

Podcast: Whispers of the Earth (August 2022)

Event: Indigenous knowledge for climate resilience (November 2021), COP26

Towards a Biocultural Heritage Territory in Rabai Cultural Landscape: exploring Mijikenda cultural values and practices for sustainable development, Chemuku Wekesa, Leila Ndalilo, Krystyna Swiderska (2021), Project material

Indigenous knowledge and values: key for nature conservation, Krystyna Swiderska, Alejandro Argumedo, Yiching Song, Ajay Rastogi, Nawraj Gurung, Chemuku Wekesa, Guanqi Li (2021), IIED Briefing

Biocultural heritage territories: key to halting biodiversity loss, Krystyna Swiderska, Alejandro Argumedo, Michel Pimbert (2020), IIED Briefing 

Podcast: Indigenous biocultural heritage (November 2019), Green Heritage Futures

Biocultural heritage territories, Alejandro Argumedo, Krystyna Swiderska (2014), Project flyer 

Project: Indigenous Biocultural Heritage for Sustainable Development

Website: Biocultural heritage