“Kaya, Kaya, Kaya!” the slim man calls out like a seer, his voice echoing and reechoing below the forest canopy.
Startled, a pair of love birds take to flight, leaving behind an army of dragonflies to dance in the mid-morning heat.
This call is the Mijikenda elders’ way of calling a group to order.
For a man his age, Hillary Mwatsuma Kalama walks with a straight gait. He is 67. He has lived all his life inside the Kaya Kauma Forest in Kilifi, one of the indigenous forests along Kenya’s coastline protected by any of the Mijikenda sub-tribes. The wrinkles on his face and some missing teeth are the only visible vagaries of age.
On this Thursday morning, we meet Kalama on the edge of the forest where he is flanked by his wife and several other village elders.
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The visitors consist of a group of journalists and environmentalists from East Africa who are touring the forest to learn how the small community has preserved a forest purely through culture.
“This is our Kaya, our cultural identity,” Kalama tells us. Kaya means homestead in Mijikenda. “We provide security and maintain the forest from human encroachment.”
Kaya Kauma is one of the 42 indigenous forests strewn across 200 kilometres in Kenya’s coastal counties of Kwale and Kilifi.
They were created in the 16th Century as the Mijikenda migrated southwards and set up homes in the two counties. These forests are now sacred sites with shrines where the community turns to in times of trouble.
Sadly, the forests are under threat from human activities such as illegal logging and mining activities.
During our visit, construction trucks blew huge plumes of dust as they ferried construction materials taken from local quarries to be used in Lapsset projects in neighbouring Lamu County.
Such activities, Kalama says, will affect the forests they have worked so hard to protect.
“Mining is killing our forests. It is also killing us slowly through respiratory diseases. Our women are even having miscarriages due to the explosions,” he tells us.
While they have little powers to ward off the miners, the local elders are determined to safeguard the forests by administering a strict form of discipline that includes fining those in the community who contravene the forest rules.
“This is moroni, our traditional court,” Kalama tells us, pointing to a small clearing within the forest where suspects are paraded for interrogation and fines imposed.
“You cut a tree or clear some bush without any justifiable cause, we fine you. We find you harvesting herbs to use as medicine without permission from the elders, we fine you.”
The elders though, only deal with minor forest incursions such as those mentioned above. Illegal logging or charcoal-burning issues are referred to the formal government courts.
Kalama says The Kayas’ success story flies in the face of Kenya’s troubled forest conservation efforts. The community, he adds, has accomplished a task that has eluded the much state-funded conservation efforts.
“We have no funding of any sort from the government to help in conservation. We do not even have title deeds for the forests. We have tried to appeal to the highest land offices in Kenya to no avail. But we will conserve the forest to the best of our ability,’ says Kalama.
Due to the tight cultural conservation regime and preservation of local customs, nine of these forests – including Kaya Kauma – are now on the list of UNESCO’S World Heritage Sites. They also fall under the Coastal Forest Conservation Unit of National Museums of Kenya,
The other globally-recognized Kaya forests are Kaya Giriama, Kaya Jibana, Kaya Kambe, Kaya Ribe, Rabai Kayas, Duruma Kayas, and Kaya Kinodo, so named after the ethnic Mijikenda groups and cover 1,538 hectares.
“The forests’ clarification as world heritage sites shows the power of community conservations. Contrary to popular beliefs, these forests are not conserved through witchcraft. They are only treated as sacred sites where community customs are preserved,” says Lawrence Chiro, National Museums of Kenya’s coastal forests conservation officer.
However, one of the biggest threats to the local conservation efforts is the erosion of the traditional values that have taken aeons to cultivate.
According to Chiro, persisting low levels of awareness and declining cultural attachment among women and the youth could sound a death knell for these forests.
He says declining respect of elders and their traditional institution has led to killing of elders over suspicion of witchcraft.
In addition, Chiro says the land tenure status of Kaya forests is insecure despite their designation as national monuments.
“Weak community organization, lack of legal recognition for traditional institutions and management skills among Kaya groups are constraints to lasting conservation and protection. Community land in which many of the Kayas are located tends to be vulnerable to misappropriation or misuse,” says Chiro.
However, Chiro hopes that some of the income-generating projects such as butterfly farming will motivate the community to preserve the forests for future generations.
In Kenya, forest conservation is a hot potato few want to touch. It has led to armed conflicts with the government deploying state machinery to forcefully kick people out of the forest. Lives have been lost and property destroyed.
A 2018 taskforce report on forest resources management states that the country loses over 12, 000 acres of forest cover every year. The loss reduces the water available by 62 billion litres.
Today, Kenya’s forest cover is estimated to be about 7.4 per cent of the total land area, lower than the recommended global minimum of 10 per cent. The country’s closed canopy forest cover stands at about two per cent of the total land area. Again, this is a far cry from the African average of 9.3 per cent or the global average of 21.4 per cent.