Around the world, indigenous peoples have long been successful stewards of forest ecosystems. They hold traditional knowledge on maintaining biodiversity, fostering resilience, and promote harmonious coexistence between people and nature. However, with globalisation, modernisation, and climate change, indigenous communities face challenges in sharing and preserving their traditional knowledge about forest conservation.   

In August 2023, Commonwealth Alumnus Sylvester Ngome Chisika delivered a sensitisation workshop to share ways of integrating traditional and indigenous methods of biodiversity conservation with modern forest management certification in Eburru Forest.  

Sylvester is Sustainability Analyst and Conservator at the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) in Nairobi, Kenya. He is passionate about sustainable forest management practices and is also a project officer with the National Tree Planting Campaign Project.  

The activity promoted the 2023/24 ACEF theme: Preserving and Promoting Indigenous Knowledge.

The case for protecting Kenya’s forests 

Kenya is among the most ethnically diverse countries in the world with more than 25 indigenous communities. Ranging from hunter-gatherers to pastoralists, these marginalised communities are dependent on Kenya’s forests for their livelihood. Sadly, Kenya’s forests are being depleted at an alarming rate due to deforestation, unregulated logging, urbanisation, charcoal production, and other human activities which threaten ecosystems and the indigenous communities dependent on them.  

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) seeks to promote economic, social, and environmental sustainability in forest management across Eastern Africa, including Kenya. The FSC oversees responsible management in protected forest areas, plantations, and non-forest timber products like tea and bamboo.  

FSC Forest Management Certification ensures that products come from well-managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits.  

In 2021, the Government of Kenya launched a national version of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Interim National Standard to promote responsible forest management using the FSC certification system. Despite this positive step, only a small number of government officials have been informed about the benefits of forest management and many of those whose lives and livelihoods are dependent on forests in Kenya, including marginalised indigenous communities, are still unaware of forest management practices.  

Supporting the Interim National Standard initiative 

The KFS has identified Eburru Forest as a pilot site to field test the first major application of the newly approved Interim National Standard in Kenya.  

To support this field test and promote the knowledge held by indigenous forest communities, Sylvester conducted a one-day workshop at Eburru Forest Station, to increase awareness on forest management and discuss ways of integrating traditional knowledge and methods of forest management.  

The workshop was attended by 16 participants, including key representatives from the KFS, the Eburru Community Forest Association, the Ojiek indigenous community, and local youth representatives. Special guest Sammy Langat, Forest Manager for Eburru Forest, was also in attendance as a leading forest authority on sustainable forest management. Together with Paul Opanga, a forest certification expert, heled topical discussions during the workshop. 

Exchanging knowledge and ideas 

The workshop convened discussions on traditional ecological knowledge and holistic resource management practised by indigenous communities, as well as focusing on the threats faced by communities in preserving their knowledge. Throughout the workshop, Sylvester emphasised the importance of forest management, acknowledging the role of indigenous communities as guardians of the environment and the need to involve them in decision-making about forest conservation.  

Paul Opanga spoke about traditional indigenous knowledge and its role in sustainable development and promoting cultural sensitivity. He further highlighted the importance of forest management in conserving biodiversity, mitigating climate change, and delivering socio-economic benefits to local communities.  

He explained that indigenous communities should have access to equitable land rights and a legal framework in recognition of their role in forest conservation. He also presented case studies of successful indigenous forest management practices and how traditional knowledge should be integrated in certified forest practices.  

Following Paul’s session, participants took part in a Q&A session and post-workshop networking.  At the end of the workshop, participants were asked to share whether they felt that integrating indigenous knowledge and forest management could lead to better conservation outcomes. 

81% participants believed that this integration would have positive outcomes and shared that the workshop had provided a timely opportunity to increase awareness of its potential.   

87% participants expressed interest in attending future programmes and initiatives on preserving indigenous knowledge and forest management. 

Understanding and respecting indigenous knowledge is essential for sustainable forest management. It’s a holistic approach that combines cultural traditions with practical, time-tested techniques.” Workshop participant

Affirming the value of indigenous knowledge 

After the workshop, Sylvester conducted a follow-up visit to understand how participants had used the information shared.  

He found that the workshop has played a pivotal role in fostering a deeper appreciation for the wealth of traditional wisdom within the community. Buoyed by the heightened awareness, community members who participated in the workshop have re-evaluated and updated their forest management strategies to incorporate the new FSC principles.  

Upon recognising the traditional knowledge of indigenous people in Eburru forest, the Eburru Community Forest Association has realised the need for a tailored participatory forest management agreement. Since the workshop, the association’s members have been collectively engaging with indigenous communities to develop an inclusive and holistic approach to preserve both forest ecosystems and tradition indigenous knowledge for forest conservation. 

Sylvester aims to use this experience as a successful case study to further promote the need to integrate indigenous knowledge in forest management. He is certain that the sensitisation workshop can be replicated in different regions as part of the FSC Interim National Standard in Kenya and lead to positive outcomes in sustainable forest management. 

Sylvester Ngome Chisika is a 2014 Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholar from Kenya. He completed an MSc Tropical Forestry at Bangor University.