Integrated protection of the cultural and natural heritage of the Sacred Mijikenda Kaya Forests

Ashikoye Okoko
Published: 05 October 2020
Last edited: 06 October 2020
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The Kayas and the sacred forests of the Mijikenda community are a unique place for the conservation of botanical species endemic of the East African coastal forests and they considered as the carriers of group identity due to their status as sacred places and home to the Mijikenda.

The solution focuses on preserving the natural environment surrounding the Kayas through the continuation of a management approach based on the traditional knowledge of the Mijikenda and the principles of self-restrain supervised by spiritual leaders and the Council of Elders (Kambi). The protection of these outstanding sites is further supported by the National Museums of Kenya which protects the sites at the institutional and legal levels.

This unique connection of nature, culture and sacredness has led to the inscription of the Sacred Mijikenda Kaya Forests in the World Heritage List and the Mijikenda traditions and practices on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.


West and Central Africa
Scale of implementation
Coastal forest
Marine and coastal ecosystems
Food security
Forest Management
Indigenous people
Local actors
Traditional knowledge
World Heritage
Unsustainable harvesting incl. Overfishing
Lack of technical capacity
Unemployment / poverty
Sustainable development goals
SDG 2 – Zero hunger
SDG 11 – Sustainable cities and communities
SDG 15 – Life on land
Aichi targets
Target 7: Sustainable agriculture, aquaculture and forestry


Kilifi, Kenya


  • Environmental challenges:loss of forest areas; unsustainable exploitation and use of natural resources; commercial harvesting; agricultural pressure. Population increase and the resultant pressure on land resources
  • Cultural and social challenges: loss of traditional knowledge; changes in socio-cultural settings have weakened traditional structures; fragmentation of local and indigenous communities; abandonment of the Kayas; changes in demographic and in lifestyles and religious intolerance towards the sacredness and the spiritual beliefs of the Mijikenda; urbanization and urban development pressures. Lack of proper documentation and lack of recognition by relevant stakeholders, lack of administrative and national legal frameworks to enhance the protection of physical and non-physical elements.
  • Economic challenges: need to create means of sustainable development and differentiation of local sources of income; decreased economic sustainability of local communities.


The beneficiaries of these integrated protections are the Kayas and the  Mijikenda. Further beneficiaries are local communities and govenmental insitutions (particularly in relation to the authority of Elders).

How do the building blocks interact?

The protection of the sacred Kaya forests requires a complex system of value recognition, partnerships and multi-level protection of the site. The overarching framework is interlinked and interdependent character of natural, cultural and spiritual values as well as the important role played by the custodianship of the Mijikenda and the kaya elders in the protection of these values and the bio-cultural diversity of the place. This demonstrates of the fundamental role played by indigenous and spiritual values in the protection of nature.

The traditional regulatory system of the Mijikenda has been in place for over four centuries and it has allowed for the conservation and protection of the Kayas until modern day. With modern challenges of abandonment of the Kayas, loss of traditional knowledge and commercial interests, the protection of the Kayas has required the establishment of more institutional and governmental means of support for the protection of the Kayas and the elders involved in the conservation and protection of the site. The inscription under the provisions of World Heritage and the ICH Conventions have further strengthened the support in place for the protection of both tangible-intangible characters of the place and its communities.


Environmental and natural conservation is strengthened by the recognition of the forests as sacred places that cannot be exploited for economic purposes; strengthening ecosystem-services.

The conservation of the nature and culture are interdependent: on one side the recognition of nature as sacred is key to the conservation of the forests and the environment of the Kayas and on the other hand the conservation of nature is necessary to retain the cultural and spiritual values associated to the Kayas and the sacred forests of the Mijikenda. These places are maintained as sacred places and burial grounds by the local communities led by their elders. Access to the Kaya forests is controlled and entry is only allowed to the initiated elders (and in some cases not even them). Non-initiated members and visitors can only access these places with permission from the elders. Special rituals and resource utilization can be granted via special authorizations.

The spiritual connection between the memories of ancestors who lived and were buried in these places and the natural reinforces the sacredness, and justifies the need for their protection and negative exploitation.


The sustainability of local livelihoods and communities. The local inhabitants depend on these forests for food security, water sources and “storehouse” for traditional medicine and herbs for community health care.

Contributed by

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Jimbi Katana National Museums of Kenya

Other contributors

Okello Abungu Heritage Consultant