Intertwining Culture in Advocating for Community-led Conservation
Building community capacity to lead advocacy initiatives on conservation and protection of ecosystem services is crucial. Protection of sacred natural sites frequently encroached by the private sector is more likely to succeed when communities lead the process. Faith Nkirote, communications and advocacy officer at the Institute of Culture and Ecology (ICE) in Kenya uses the story of the Kivaa community in Machakos County to explain.
Community engagement in natural resources management has contributed dramatically to the success of various conservation initiatives undertaken by ICE. ICE engages communities in project implementation while recognizing the value of indigenous and local knowledge (ILK). ICE also recognizes the important role culture plays to amplify the community’s voices leading to the conservation of sacred natural sites (SNS), community’s water catchment areas and the sustainability of community-led conservation and advocacy initiatives.
ICE’s project target areas heavily rely on culture besides the indigenous and local knowledge for their day-to-day conservation and livelihoods enhancement. Some of these communities depend on indigenous knowledge and culture in their farming practices. Incorporating ILK in project implementation has contributed to the success of the community’s improved conservation of SNS and livelihoods enhancement.
Sacred natural sites include forests, hills, rivers, mountains, volcanoes, ponds, forest groves, coastal waters, islands and waterfalls. ICE has integrated them into its programming. Sensitizing the communities to the importance of protection and conservation of these sites has been a significant approach for community-led advocacy on conservation. Communities’ confidence in their role of conserving and protecting SNS continues to grow.
Consequently, through community-focused advocacy and sensitization project design, ICE has collaborated with a wide range of stakeholders including the small-scale farmers, community conservation groups, county and national governments besides like-minded civil society organizations such as Kivaa Sacred Hill in Machakos County, Ntugi Sacred Hill in Tharaka Nithi County and Kaya Forests along the Kenyan Coast. Local communities led by elders lead the campaigns against the destruction of SNS unlike in the past when these communities didn’t have confidence in their power to advocate for protection and rehabilitation of these critical SNS.
Before the introduction of ICE’s project approach on the natural resource management interventions, many SNS were extensively degraded by human activities. The state of these SNS, for instance, the hills and forests, had lost their tree cover due to mass deforestation. Over time, ICE has learned that integrating culture in natural resource management, working with the elders and sensitizing the communities on the importance of the SNS, their protection and their role in conservation, is vital. The work of ICE in some of these hills and forests has led to reafforestation. Conserving SNS mitigates the impacts of climate crises and increases soil’s fertility, while contributing to food security and building resilient communities in Africa.
Community Culture-led natural resources initiatives – The case of Kivaa Sacred Hill
Situated in Machakos County, Kivaa sacred hill presents an example of what can be achieved by involving communities in conservation initiatives through a cultural lens. ICE has been actively involved in Kivaa hill conservation initiatives since 2012, including its gazettement in 2016 by the National Museums of Kenya as a national monument whose value to the community is conservation and a cultural area.
Kivaa hill is important to the local residents as a source of medicinal plants, indigenous trees and a home to various community shrines used as worship areas to appease their gods, a cultural practice deeply enshrined in the Kamba culture. Before the destruction of the hill, it was famous for attracting rain. With time, the hill was destroyed through logging for timber, charcoal burning and firewood. In partnership with the local community, and stakeholders led by ICE, many advocacy campaigns were embarked on to raise awareness on the need for conserving the hill.
The Kivaa community drew an eco-map to show the past, present and envisioned future of the community’s ecosystem service. This helped to ensure that the community understood the extensive damage on the ground and what they needed to do to regenerate it. The community and some of the stakeholders are Vamwe Ki Network, the local administration represented by the chief, Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and local elders. These stakeholders were engaged in the development of eco-maps to showcase what was to be achieved ten years after. These two tools (eco-maps and eco-calendars) have been a point of reference to the conservation efforts undertaken in the hill.
ICE has also engaged the Kivaa hill and other communities in livelihood enhancement activities to boost their economic status and promote food security. Some of these indigenous foods are beans, sorghum, cowpeas, wheat and pumpkin. To build communities’ resilience, sensitization on averting climate crises has been carried out besides education on the importance of seed saving, beekeeping, food diversity to cushion communities and enhance their resilience. The gender-focused approach of the interventions have also given the community an improved understanding of the complementarity role of men and women in the development of the community.
The challenges experienced
In 2021, the private sector wished to install a telecommunication mast on Kivaa hill. This was resisted by the local community as the encroachment on the hill hadn’t received the consent of the community and other stakeholders. The community led demonstrations against the destruction of the forest and the hill that would be caused by putting up a mast. This bold step by the community was as a result of the advocacy. Unfortunately, by the time the community learned of this encroachment, the telecommunication company had paved a road up the hill, destroying areas that had been reforested by the community.
The company had been issued with a permit by the county government of Machakos amidst community dissatisfaction. ICE supported the community in petitioning the National Museums of Kenya to intervene with the county government of Machakos to stop the development. As a result of the protests, public participation (consultation) was hurriedly done but requests involving all relevant stakeholders were ignored. This is another step of the journey that ICE will walk with the Kivaa community to protect the sacred hill.
Based on the experience of Kivaa, it is evident that community engagement is critical for achieving natural resource management by designing advocacy initiatives that are community-targeted, inclusive and relevant to their conservation efforts. ICE’s work with Kivaa community was made possible through the various support from the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC), African Biodiversity Network (ABN) and Christensen Fund.