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Intertwining Culture in Advocating for Community-led Conservation

Community engagement in natural resources management has remarkably contributed to the success of various conservation initiatives being undertaken by the Institute for Culture and Ecology (ICE). ICE engages communities at all levels of project implementation while leveraging on their indigenous and local knowledge (ILK) and culture thus amplifying their voices leading to sustainability of community-led conservation and advocacy initiatives.

Over the years, the cultural approach has had significant impact on ICE’s conservation work considering that majority of ICE project(target) areas heavily rely on culture and indigenous and local knowledge for their day-to-day conservation and livelihoods improvement engagements. Some of these communities still depend on indigenous knowledge and culture in their farming practices, for instance in forecasting of rainy seasons and dry seasons among others. Hence incorporating this knowledge in project implementation has been a huge contributor to the success of the community conservation and livelihoods improvement initiatives.

Among some of ICE target project areas, forests, hills, and waterfalls are viewed as sacred natural sites and hence, integrating culture and conservation has been the most significant entry point for ICE’s advocacy on community conservation.   By emphasizing on the need to conserve forests, hills, waterfalls, and some public land to protect their sacredness, the projects have managed to inspire communities in undertaking community-driven protection and rehabilitation of the sites they deem as sacred. This has motivated communities to undertake conservation initiatives effortlessly amidst the myriad of challenges.

Consequently, through community focused advocacy and sensitization messages, ICE has managed to draw a lot of attention and collaborate with various stakeholders among them small scale farmers, community conservation groups, county, and national governments, as well as like-minded civil society organizations for support and synergy

Cases in point are those of Kivaa Sacred Hill in Machakos County, Ntugi Sacred Hill in Tharaka Nithi and Kaya Forests along Kenyan Coast where local communities led by elders have been quite instrumental in leading the campaigns against their destruction which has complimented efforts by ICE to advocate for protection and rehabilitation of these critical sites. As compared to the period before the commencement of the natural resource management interventions by ICE, the aforementioned sacred sites were extensively degraded leading to a conservation crisis with the risk of them being completely. A recent check in the month of December 2021, however showcases immense success in the conservation efforts with the current state being of hills and forests that have slowly but steadily regained their tree cover and cases of deforestation reduced. This is evidence that by integrating culture in natural resource management to win the hearts of the communities, it is quite possible to achieve great success in conservation efforts.

Community Culture-led natural resources initiatives – The case of Kivaa Sacred Hill

Situated in Machakos County, Kivaa Sacred Hill presents a classic example of what can be achieved by involving communities in conservation through a culture lens. The hill is a heritage site that was gazette in 2016 by the National Museum as a national monument by the virtual of being a sacred hill whose value to the community is not only conservation focused but also a cultural important area. ICE was actively involved in the gazettement as a stakeholder who had been working with the communities since the year 2012.

Kivaa hill is quite critical to the local residents due to its value as a hub of medicinal plants, indigenous trees and a home to various community shrines that are used by both men and women to appease their gods-a practice that is deeply enshrined in the Kamba culture. In 2012 when ICE commenced work with the local communities in Kivaa, the hill had been totally destroyed leaving it bear with no tree cover. Rapidly a hill that had been famed for attracting rain in the area had been turned into a tower of rocks with the indigenous trees having been logged for charcoal burning, timber, and firewood. The shrubs were also quickly diminished extensively putting to risk the already fragile ecosystem hence calling for an urgent intervention was needed. In partnership with the local community through the auspices of Vamwe Ki Network a community-based organization, ICE embarked on numerous of advocacy campaigns to sensitize the various stakeholders on the need for conserving the hill.

In an aggressive journey that kicked off with development of the hill’s eco maps which were key to engaging the community in drawing the current situation. This was key to ensuring that the community understood the extensive damage on the ground and also to gather evidence to compliment the conservation efforts that were to be undertaken. Secondly, the community and other stakeholders among them the local administration represented by the chief, Kenya Forest Service, local elders among others were engaged in the development of eco-calendars to showcase what was to be achieved ten years after. This has always acted a reference to the conservation efforts being undertaken in the hill.

Besides the focus on the hill, ICE has been engaging communities in livelihood enhancement activities to boost their economic status as well as promote food security. Growing of indigenous food varieties among them beans, sorghum, wheat, and pumpkin among others has been key to ICE conservation agenda in the area to cushion communities against climate change and promote resilience since these crops are known for their ability to adapt to the changing climate. The communities have also been mentored on seed saving and preservation of indigenous varieties to prevent them from extinction.

There has been extensive participation of all community groupings in the advocacy and conservation efforts of Kivaa Hill resulting from the gender-focused approach of the interventions. This is key to sustainability since most if not all stakeholders have been part of the process. Elders have also been key to the process by ensuring that the sacred aspect of the hill is well outlined and preserved. Beekeeping has also been significant to the community as the project has been advocating for it as a conservation friendly activity.

Kivaa community has benefited for various advocacy initiatives amongst them the walking workshop that was held on the hill and exchange visits by   other communities undertaking conservation activities.

The challenges experienced

Restoration of Kivaa Hill has not been a walk in the park. Based on its strategic placement, there is a lot of interest both from the communities who over-depend on it for firewood, charcoal and harvesting of medicinal herbs and also the private sector who have encroached to install communication masts atop it.

In 2021, the local community in Kivaa was engaged a tussle with a privately owned telecommunication company that had encroached the hill without engaging them and other stakeholders. The local community and other stakeholders had not been involved in any public participation prior to commencement of development in the hill which led to community-led demonstrations and protest to stop the destruction. Unfortunately, by the time this happened the company had already paved a road up the hill leaving atrial of destruction of trees that had been planted by the community. The company had been issued with permit by the county government of Machakos amidst community dissatisfaction.

ICE supported the community in petitioning the National Museums of Kenya to intervene in stopping the development with the county government of Machakos being adamant on engaging the various stakeholders. As a result of the protests, a public participation was hurriedly done and requests of involving all relevant stakeholders were ignored. Communities were lured with a list of promises jeopardizing part of the conservation that ICE had supported them to undertake.

The community conservation activities in Kivaa Sacred Hill were undertaken by ICE through the support of various partners among them Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC)African Biodiversity Network (ABN), Biovision Foundation and Christensen Fund.

Based on the experiences in Kivaa and other areas that ICE is implementing projects, it is evidence that communities are extremely key to NRM hence the need to continually design advocacy messages that are community-targeted and relevant to their conservation efforts.

Article by: Faith Gikunda, Advocacy, Gender and Communications Officer


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