Sustainable use of biodiversity in socio-ecological production landscapes and seascapes (SEPLS) and its contribution to effective area-based conservation: the case of Kaya forests on the Kenyan Coast



  • Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI)


  • 30/10/2018


  • Eastern Africa


  • Kenya (Coast Region)


  • The Kaya forests, located in Kenya’s coastal landscape, are sacred forests of the Mijikenda community. These forests are peculiar multi-functional socio-ecological production landscapes that are rich in biodiversity. More than half of Kenya's rare plants are found on the coast, many of which are found in these sacred forests. Due to the rich diversity of flora and fauna, the Kaya forests provide an array of ecosystem goods and services which support human well-being and livelihood systems. Consequently, a study was conducted in Kilifi and Kwale counties on the Kenyan Coast, mainly inhabited by the Mijikenda community, to determine how sustainable use of biodiversity in the Kaya forests contributes to effective area-based conservation of biodiversity. A mixed-methods approach was used involving both qualitative and quantitative surveys. Representatives of 375 households drawn from 31 villages were interviewed using semi-structured questionnaires. Thirty-one Focus Group Discussions (FGDs), one in each village, were also held with key informants (herbalists, rainmakers, Kaya elders and experienced indigenous farmers) who are the main custodians of indigenous knowledge. The results showed that the Mijikenda community ensures sustainable use of biodiversity through domestication of wild foods and medicinal plants. Additionally, the solid cultural values and traditional resource governance system (Kaya elders’ council) that connects the community were important for sustaining traditional knowledge and biodiversity, and promoting collective activities that enhance information exchange, sharing of ideas and networking. These collective activities likewise reinforce the cultural values of solidarity, collectiveness and harmony that promote integrated landscape management, and hence lead to effective area-based conservation of biodiversity. These integrated and holistic management approaches of the Kaya forests, if sustained, could in the long-term ensure that these sacred forests are well-connected and integrated into the broader landscape, hence sustainably conserving biodiversity while providing ecosystem services that support local livelihoods.


  • Biodiversity; Kaya forests; Landscape; Management; Mijikenda community


  • Chemuku Wekesa and Leila Ndalilo (KEFRI)

Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.

Figure 1. Map of the country and case study region. Map of Kenya showing the location of Kilifi County, Kenyan Coast (Source: GIS and Remote Sensing Department, KEFRI)

Figure 2. Land use and land cover map of case study site. Location of Kaya forests in Kilifi County, Kenyan Coast (Source: GIS and Remote Sensing Department, KEFRI)


Kenya is divided into eight regions, namely, Central, Coast, Eastern, Nairobi, North Eastern, Nyanza, Rift Valley and Western. The Coast region stretches about 150 km inland from the seafront covering an area of 67,500 km2, approximately 11.5% of the total area of Kenya (Ongoma & Onyango 2014). There are six counties in the Coast region: Kilifi, Kwale, Mombasa, Lamu, Tana River and Taita Taveta, with a combined population of 3,325,307 (Republic of Kenya 2009). The Coast region supports about 8.6% of the national population. The population increased significantly from 1.83 million in 1989 to 3.33 million in 2009, an average increase of 4.1% annually (Republic of Kenya 2007; 2009). The Kenya Coast is endowed with a variety of resources that support livelihoods and economic development in the region and Kenya as a whole, in addition to maintaining the health and function of marine and coastal ecosystems (Ongoma & Onyango 2014). The resources include coral reefs, mangroves, lowland and Kaya forests, Afromontane forests and historical sites which provide the foundation for the region’s economy. Natural forests in the Coast region cover about 8.4% of the total land area (KEFRI 2016).

Despite being rich in natural resources, the coastal region is still characterized by high levels of poverty, where up to 70-80% of residents live below the poverty line (Republic of Kenya 2009; Wekesa et al. 2015). The rural households have limited access to clean water, basic education and healthcare. Moreover, the local population is heavily dependent on the provisions of the natural ecosystem for survival, with agriculture (crop and animal production) being the main source of food and income (Wekesa et al. 2017). Other economic activities undertaken in the region are fishing, tourism, trade, forestry and mining. Lately, the low-lying region has been experiencing frequent droughts, floods and increased incidences of pests and diseases as a result of climate change (IPCC 2001; Wekesa et al. 2017). The impacts of climate change coupled with rapid population growth and overdependence on natural resources by local communities are causing extensive degradation of natural resources leading to loss of biodiversity and low food productivity.

Kaya forests are important multifunctional socio-ecological production landscapes (Wekesa, Ndalilo & Swiderska 2016) that provide both direct and indirect benefits for human well-being. The diverse flora and fauna of the Kaya forests and the associated processes support local communities in sectors such as biomass energy, food, shelter, herbal medicine, eco-tourism and agriculture. Moreover, Kaya forests provide ecosystem services such as air and water purification, pollination, seed dispersal, climate modification, soil stabilization, drought and flood control, recycling of nutrients and maintenance of healthy habitats. Other important functions of Kaya forests include spiritual and aesthetic values, supporting indigenous knowledge systems and education. These forests also act as a source of genetic resources for food, forestry and agriculture. Biodiversity conservation in these sacred forests mitigates the loss of variability of plant genetic resources and hence averts economic slumps in surrounding regions. Conservation and sustainable use of the genetic resources is important to the survival of the local communities and environmental conservation. Local adaptation strategies to climate change are also directly supported by the rich biodiversity of the Kaya forests.

However, Kaya forests are undergoing a drastic transformation in the present era of global environmental change. The forests are under extreme pressure from sand harvesting and the extraction of building poles, as well as encroachment on forest areas in search of more fertile land for crop farming and livestock grazing. The effects of climate change have further exacerbated the situation reducing the capacity of these important socio-ecological production landscapes to sustain and improve local livelihoods, conserve biodiversity and adapt and cope with the effects of climate change (see Fig.3 and 4).

Figure 3. Aerial view of Kaya forest

Figure 4. Degraded site within Kaya forest

An integrated landscape management approach is a prerequisite to ensure the sustainable use of biodiversity in Kaya forests for socio-economic development in the coastal region. Integrated and holistic management approaches for Kaya forests could ensure that these sacred forests are well-connected and integrated into the broader landscape, hence contributing to area-based conservation of biodiversity while at the same time providing ecosystem services that support local livelihoods. This paper presents findings of a study conducted by SIFOR[1] to determine how sustainable use of biodiversity in Kaya forests contributes to effective area-based conservation of biodiversity. The SIFOR project, which was funded by the European Union, aimed at strengthening traditional knowledge-based innovation systems for food security in the face of climate change. The project worked with indigenous and traditional farming communities in remote areas dominated by Kaya forests which sustain significant biodiversity and traditional knowledge that contribute to effective area-based conservation of biodiversity in the landscape. Hence, the SIFOR project was relevant to this particular study.

Description of the activities

Study sites and communities

The study was undertaken in Kilifi and Kwale counties mainly inhabited by sub-tribes of the Mijikenda community (see Fig. 1 and 2 for location). The study communities were Giriama, Chonyi and Rabai in Kilifi County, and Digo and Duruma in Kwale County (south of Mombasa towards the Kenya-Tanzania border). They were selected because of their diverse agro-ecosystems, rich traditional knowledge and agrobiodiversity comprising indigenous vegetables and Kaya forests. These communities are spread along the Kenyan coastline in wet, semi-arid and dryland agro-ecosystems. Natural resource use and management practices in the five communities are guided by customary rules, centred on the sacred Kaya forests culture.

About 71% of people inhabiting Kwale and Kilifi Counties live below the poverty line (Republic of Kenya 2013a; Republic of Kenya 2013b). In Kilifi County, the average annual rainfall varies from 300 mm in the hinterland to 1,300 mm at the coastal belt, while the mean annual temperature is 30-34°C and 21-30°C in these areas respectively (Republic of Kenya 2013a). Kwale County has an average annual rainfall of about 1,200 mm in the coastal belt and 400 mm in the hinterland, and an average temperature of around 24°C in the coastal belt and 26°C in the hinterland (Republic of Kenya 2013b).

Research methods

A mixed-methods approach involving both qualitative and quantitative surveys was used to explore how sustainable use of biodiversity in Kaya forests contributes to the effective area-based conservation of biodiversity. This approach provided breadth and depth of understanding and corroboration, while offsetting the weaknesses inherent in using each approach alone (Creswell & Plano Clark 2007). Additionally, a Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) method was employed; key informant interviews were held in each community, using Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) as part of both the qualitative and quantitative surveys. A mixture of open-ended and multi-response questions were asked during both surveys to explore the following key indicators: livelihoods, crop diversity, social capital, climate change, biocultural innovations and innovation factors. The quantitative survey explored them in more depth and entailed both household and community level surveys.

Stratified random sampling was used to select the respondents based on diverse socio-economic activities, adherence to traditional culture, linguistic/dialect differences, development level and proximity to urban areas (villages with varying development levels were selected for comparison) and geographical positioning and distribution in the study area. The number of interviewees chosen was proportionate to the population size for each of the villages. Representatives of 375 households were interviewed. Interviewees included herbalists, rainmakers, Kaya elders and indigenous farmers. Likewise, 31 FGDs, one in each village, were held with key informants (herbalists, rainmakers, Kaya elders and experienced indigenous farmers) who are the main custodians of indigenous knowledge.


Age and gender profile of the respondents

Many of the respondents were elderly, with roughly half aged 55 and over (Fig. 5). Overall, 44% of the people interviewed during the survey were women (Fig. 6). However, women’s participation was much lower by about 50% in the Digo community compared to other sub-tribes because the community is largely Muslim, and women’s participation in decision-making is often low. Women were only allowed to participate in interviews in the Digo community with the consent of their menfolk, or if no men were present.

Figure 5. Age class distribution of the respondents (Source: Field survey data, SIFOR Project)

Figure 6. Gender of the interviewees for the survey (Source: Field survey data, SIFOR Project)

Strategies for sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity

Since 1982 or in the last 30 years, communities have developed and adopted several community-driven strategies based on traditional knowledge to conserve biodiversity and address their economic needs (particularly poverty and the high cost of living). These strategies are mainly technological and social/institutional in nature (Table 1). Over and above, the most widely adopted conservation strategy to preserve biodiversity in light of changing climatic conditions is diversifying traditional crop varieties by planting different crop varieties in the same season on the same piece of land as an insurance against risks posed by climate change (reported by 42.5% of households), followed by domestication of wild plants for income, medicine and food security (35.3%), reviving of customary laws and practices to preserve traditional values and crop diversity (25.0%), re-introduction of traditional farming methods (23.6%) and planting large areas of resilient traditional crop varieties (21.7%). Thus, diversifying traditional crop varieties as an insurance against risks posed by climate change was the most practiced technological strategy to conserve biodiversity, as well as to enhance the adaptive capacity of the community with regards to the impacts of climate change.

The reviving of customary laws and practices to preserve traditional values and crop diversity was the most embraced social/institutional strategy involving 25.0% of surveyed households. This strategy helps the community to preserve traditional values and conserve diverse crop varieties and wild food and medicinal plants that are important for coping with the impacts of climate change. The diversity in crop varieties, which are mostly drought-tolerant and pest- and disease-resistant, ensures communities’ food security despite variability in weather conditions. Wild medicinal plants are used to make herbal remedies to manage crop pests and treat livestock pests whose incidences are increasing due to climate change (10.0%).

Free exchange of seeds among community members through seed and farmers’ innovation fairs was another social/institutional strategy applied by the Mijikenda community to conserve biodiversity (17.2%). Community seed banks have been established through the support of the SIFOR project for seed saving and storage to promote seed exchange among community members and improve their access to affordable seeds with desired characteristics like tolerance to drought and resistance to pests and diseases (10.0%). The free seed exchange contributes to the conservation of landraces and enhances community cohesion, contributing to the conservation of biodiversity. The establishment of cultural villages to conserve cultural practices and enhance cohesion was an institutional strategy adopted by 8.5% of the households.

Table 1. Strategies for enhancing effective area-based conservation of biodiversity developed by the Mijikenda community (Source: Field survey data, SIFOR Project)


Domestication of various wild food and medicinal plants for increased income

Domestication of plants naturally growing in Kaya forests is largely driven by the need to diversify community incomes due to massive crop failure, as well as by the increased incidences of crop pests and diseases that necessitate development of bio-pesticides by local communities as local remedies to prevent and manage the pests and diseases. This strategy has also been employed to relieve pressure from Kaya forests, hence contributing to the conservation of existing biodiversity. Wild plants such as Lilium orientale, Tamarindus indica, Ancylobotrys petersiana, Landolphia kirkii and Ziziphus mauritiana have been domesticated for their fruits, which are usually sold for income. These plants can tolerate prolonged dry periods, ensuring farmers have a source of income in case of crop failure. Other wild plants like Adansonia digitata are not usually domesticated, but the fruits are sold either raw or after value addition through sweetening. Plants like Monanthotaxis fornicate, Oldifieldia somalensis, Fernandoa magnifica, Acacia mellifera and Salvadora persica have been domesticated by herbalists because of their medicinal value.

The East African doum palm (Hyphaene compressa), which often grows in riverine areas and has recently become rare in the area following massive deforestation, is also being domesticated for use in weaving and basketry. Local community members undertaking commercial weaving and basketry at the cottage level have domesticated it on-farm as a source of raw materials. The species is also important for construction of traditional Mijikenda houses. This domestication has been taking place for the past 20 years and has provided economic, social and conservation benefits to the community through income generation, provision of cheap roofing materials and by sustaining biodiversity.

The farmers obtain propagation materials from Kaya forests and raise the seedlings in their nurseries before planting them on their farms. Initially, the plants lacked propagation protocols due to lack of scientific research on the propagation of such plants. However, the farmers (in groups and individually) have come up with propagation protocols using cuttings, seeds and wildings, after trying several methods (see Fig.7). By domesticating the plants, the pressure on the Kaya forests and biodiversity was reduced, and these species were conserved. Hence, these efforts contributed to effective area-based conservation of biodiversity in the Kaya forests and the associated landscapes.

Figure 7. Training of Rabai Cultural group on propagation of wild medicinal and food plants

Establishment of cultural villages/centres in Kaya forests

aya forests face major threats due to rapid socio-economic and cultural changes, coupled with growing human demand for forest products and land for farming due to declining agricultural productivity and farm incomes. As a result, there has been encroachment into the forests. Thus, the Mijikenda community, through collective action, has established cultural villages adjacent to each of the Kaya forests as an alternative source of income and to ensure Mijikenda cultural practices are not lost. The cultural villages provide centralized venues for showcasing Mijikenda cultural ceremonies, rituals and biodiversity conservation-related practices. Traditional huts have been built in the layout of a traditional Mijikenda village, including a traditional spiritual healer’s hut, a shrine where evil spells are expelled, a traditional granary, a typical Mijikenda kitchen, as well as an area where traditional crops like cowpeas and sweet potatoes, as well as wild food and medicinal plants, are cultivated (see Fig.8).

Figure 8. Sacred hut within Kaya forest used by Kaya elders for traditional prayers and rites and rituals

The cultural villages have brought together different community groups involved in traditional dancing and exhibition of cultural practices. They have enabled the community to diversify and increase its income sources through cultural tourism. Several traditional dances of Mijikenda sub-tribes are performed in the villages. This has made the cultural villages attractive places to visit for both local and international tourists (see Fig. 9 and 10). The villages have also allowed the community to network by exchanging planting materials of traditional food crops and wild crop relatives. The cultural villages have largely been promoted through cultural festivals coordinated by the Kaya council of elders as part of the preservation of Mijikenda culture.

Figure 9. Mijikenda community performing a traditional dance during a cultural festival

Figure 10. Traditional dance by Rabai community during New Year celebration

The cultural villages are part of the social/institutional strategy developed to enhance community cohesion, generate income and conserve the rich biodiversity in the Kaya forests. Pregnant women, men and women who have engaged in sexual intercourse the previous night, menstruating women and young babies of less than six months are usually not allowed to enter Kaya forests. The establishment of cultural villages has made it possible for the local people, particularly pregnant women, and men and women who have engaged in sexual intercourse the previous night, menstruating women and babies less than six months old, to access services like healing, fore-telling and removal of spells, all of which would, otherwise, be done inside the Kaya forests. This has ensured that the Kaya forests are protected from illegal human activities which could have been associated with cultural practices and traditional ceremonies and performed in the forests in the absence of the village.

Role of culture in biodiversity conservation

The study revealed that the cultural values of solidarity, reciprocity, equilibrium and collectiveness play an important role in binding the Mijikenda community and hence promoting socio-economic development, biodiversity conservation and adaptation to climate change through exchange of ideas. Solidarity was defined as togetherness or unity among people with a common interest, and reciprocity as equal exchange or mutual cooperation between people and nature. Equilibrium was defined as a state of balance between people and nature, while collectiveness was defined as the state of togetherness amongst members of the community.

Biodiversity conservation is deeply entrenched in the cultural values of the Mijikenda community, and the Kaya forests play an important role in supporting cultural values and conserving wild species for biocultural innovation (e.g. domestication of medicinal and food plants). Most traditional ceremonies are associated with natural resources, and they play an important role in conserving biodiversity. Traditional prayers and sacrifices are aimed at appeasing the spiritual world, for example, use of grains of landrace varieties such as mustard, millet, sorghum and maize and indigenous animal breeds such as cattle, sheep and chicken. The significance of these varieties in traditional ceremonies has led to their conservation. Most traditional healing ceremonies use various plant parts from Kaya forests. Furthermore, traditional resource governance systems such as the Kaya elders’ council are used to conserve important plant species and the sacred Kaya forests, where the ceremonies usually take place.

Various farming activities in the agricultural calendar are associated with traditional ceremonies. For instance, before planting seeds, Kaya elders offer prayers and sacrifices, requesting the spiritual world to bless the seeds and grant the community a bountiful harvest. After harvesting, thanksgiving prayers are also offered. Seeds stored after harvests are often used to perform traditional rituals aimed at averting disasters such as crop failure and animal and human diseases. Traditional knowledge regarding physical coping strategies, agriculture, seed management, weather prediction, oral legends and biodiversity conservation is equally and openly shared amongst members of the community, and is passed from older to younger generations through various methods. These include traditional ceremonies that bring members of the community together, whereby girls are mentored by elderly aunts and grandmothers, and boys by uncles and grandfathers on traditional knowledge and cultural practices that promote conservation of natural resources and associated biodiversity.

Role of the Kaya council of elders in biodiversity conservation

Traditional institutions such as the Kaya elders’ council are important for sustaining traditional knowledge and biodiversity. The Kaya elders’ council is fully engaged in governing and managing the Kaya forests according to the community’s rights, knowledge, capacities and institutions, and the benefits arising from the forests are equitably shared. The traditional governance system by the Kaya council of elders has rules and regulations that restrict activities that impact negatively on the Kaya forests and associated landscapes (see Fig. 11).

Figure 11. Kaya elders in Kaya forest after conducting prayers

Enforcement of rules is performed mainly through a system of taboos, curses, and other spiritual sanctions that have a powerful effect in the rural communities associated with the Kaya forests. Infringement of the usage laws of the council of elders attracts a fine that the miscreant must pay to avoid spiritual retribution (Githitho 2005). Rules to protect the sacred forests include a ban on cutting of live trees, although deadwood may be collected in limited amounts in some sites within the forests for domestic use. The firewood (deadwood) is collected by women who take only as much as they can carry in their arms without using a rope. Grazing of livestock is not allowed, owing to the risk of disturbing ritual symbols hidden in the forest. Livestock straying into the Kaya forest risk being seized and slaughtered. Wildlife, including large snakes, is not to be molested, as these animals are believed to represent spirits.

Besides the rules governing the physical and natural environment, there are other rules that protect the spiritual and ritual sanctity of the forests. Sorcery or witchcraft is strictly prohibited in the Kaya forests, as it is seen to be a destructive and anti-social activity. Similarly, violence and shedding of blood within the Kaya forests is proscribed. Suicides and murder victims cannot be buried in the Kaya forests. Some Kaya forests have rules on what should be worn when entering the forest during a visit. In certain areas within the forest, only traditional Kaya clothing can be worn, including a sarong and a shawl. Although visitors are shown through the Kaya forests, cleansing of the site afterwards is performed if the visitors are not members of the Mijikenda group associated with the Kaya forests.

These local rules and regulations help to preserve the communities’ cultural practices, traditional knowledge and safeguard these sacred forests, hence protecting many species, most of which are endemic to these particular forests. This promotes conservation of biodiversity in the Kaya forests and the associated landscapes, contributing to the effective area-based conservation of biodiversity and Aichi Biodiversity Target 11.


Clearly, traditional knowledge and cultural values and practices play an important role in enhancing effective conservation of biodiversity by the Mijikenda community. The five communities have developed a number of strategies to conserve biodiversity—mainly technological and institutional strategies. The most widespread technological strategies to conserve biodiversity were found to be: planting several varieties of the same crop on the same piece of land; domestication of wild foods and medicinal plants; re-introduction of traditional farming methods; and planting large areas of resilient traditional crops that are drought tolerant. The formation of cultural villages has strengthened cultural identity, conserved resilient landraces of crop varieties and native plant species and enhanced income and information exchange among community members. The Mijikenda community has been highly innovative in developing conservation strategies because it has solid cultural values and a traditional resource governance system (Kaya elders’ council) that connects the community. Traditional institutions such as the Kaya elders’ councils are important for sustaining traditional knowledge and biodiversity and promoting collective natural resources management. Community groups and cultural ceremonies bring people together, promote information exchange, sharing of ideas and networking, and reinforce cultural values of solidarity, collectiveness and harmony that are critical in promoting effective area-based conservation of biodiversity in the Kaya forests at the landscape level.

The ecosystem approach applied by the Mijikenda community in managing the Kaya forests and associated landscapes to enhance ecological connectivity and conserve biodiversity should be strengthened to stem the loss of traditional knowledge and biodiversity resources. This could be done by establishing Biocultural Heritage Territories (BCHTs)[2] that can also serve to generate income from tourism. The established cultural villages could provide the basis for establishing a biocultural territory for integrated landscape management. Moreover, capacity building on value addition of nature-based traditional products from Kaya forests and connected landscapes should be supported to increase incomes of local communities and create incentives for sustaining biodiversity and traditional knowledge. This would also help to revitalize traditional cultural identity, and engage youth, since it offers a vision of development which embraces both modern and traditional knowledge for maximizing livelihoods.


The authors would like to thank the European Union (EU) for funding this study through the Smallholder Innovation for Resilience Project. The technical and logistical support provided by IIED and KEFRI respectively is highly appreciated. We also thank the community field coordinators for undertaking data collection. Finally, we wish to thank the local Mijikenda communities for contributing valuable information that was used to develop this publication.


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[1] Smallholder Innovations for Resilience Project being implemented in Kenya, Peru, China and India.

[2] Land use mosaics encompassing indigenous and traditional land tenure, production and exchange systems, cultural identity, community organization and simultaneous goals of endogenous development and biodiversity conservation.