Collision of Cultures and Communication in Forest Conservation Campaigns in Kenya

Published on 18th June 2019

Kenya has been promoting the participation of rural communities in the management and utilization of natural forests through Participatory Forest Management (PFM). The PFM approach adjacent communities to forests adjacent and other stakeholders in management of forests within a framework that contributes to community’s livelihoods.

Numerous benefits are expected to flow to individuals from PFM. They include increased access to forest products such as wood fuel, herbal medicine, honey, tree seedlings, and fodder. Other activities allowed within the co-management framework are eco-tourism, bee-keeping, butterfly farming, fish farming and growing of crops.

With these benefits, while communities are expected to embrace the system and participate effectively, progress has been slow and often Community Forest Associations (CFAs) have collapsed shortly after formation. Anderson et al (2015) laments that, ‘Nine years after the passage of the Forestry Act that was intended to better liaise with communities has not produced the hoped-for environmental, economic, and empowerment benefits.’

There are many reasons why PFM is not achieving its objectives in Kenya. One key reason is unacknowledged cross-cultural communication challenges between external Eurocentric-thinking conservation campaign strategists and grassroots communities living adjacent to forests. These challenges also permeate other development communication campaigns in Kenya. I use the case of Arabuko Sokoke Forest (ASF) in the North Coast of Kenya, where PFM was first piloted in Kenya, to enlighten on this issue.

High- and Low-Context Communication

The concept of high- and low-context communication was familiarized by anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture, and it refers to the way cultures communicate. Hall’s concept of high and low-context communication provides insights into how differences in perceptions regarding communication style can render cross-cultural messages ineffective. In his view, all cultures can be situated on a continuum with respect to how much contexting occurs in communication. A high-context (HC) communication or message is one in which most of the information is either in the physical context or is internalized in the person, whereas very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message.

In high-context cultures, like that of the adjacent forest dwellers in Arabuko-Sokoke, and most grassroots people in Africa, the verbal code carries relatively little of the meaning in a typical interaction and may even be somewhat misleading. Instead, people place greater confidence in nonverbal behaviour and situational cues. Communicators in HC cultures often use indirect or vague language because they rely on their interlocutors to grasp their meaning from the context. Meanings are derived from the context. Therefore, it is important for social change agents to be sensitive to this and be accustomed to actively interpreting the subtleties of the message they receive from grassroots people.

In contrast, in low context communication the mass of the information is vested in the explicit code. Low-context communication is typical of the Western nations from which many international conservation campaign strategists hail. In these societies people tend to be more individualistic. Since they maintain relatively little close involvement with others, meaning is carried in the explicit verbal code in order to make up for that which is missing in the context. In LC cultures you say what you mean.

The outworking of HC/LC continuum in conservation campaigns and development communication campaigns, where the West and grassroots African communities often collide, has received limited academic attention. The transition of conservation (health, development, technical or scientific) concepts across this HC/LC continuum could result in a failure to convey the intended messages, a loss of meaning, and misconstrued information.

At Arabuko-Sokoke forest, there is collision of cultures between the Eurocentric-thinking government agencies and international conservation campaign strategists on the one hand, and the collective cultures of the adjacent forest dwellers on the other hand. The Western paradigm, from which participatory forest management is conceptualized, structured and implemented intellectualizes conservation as a push for pristine forests. This is incongruent with the adjacent forest dwellers’ culture and world-views of symbiotic living with biodiversity and nature.

Arabuko-Sokoke is life for the surrounding local communities; it is an integral part of their everyday living and they cannot comprehend that it must be left untouched. Western low-context cultures can compartmentalise life, and separate forests from human beings, business from play, work-life from home-life or sex-life, and skill and intellect from ethics and morality. This separation is opposed to African communitarian high-context cultures. Participatory forest management must acknowledge that Arabuko-Sokoke is amalgamated to the socio-cultural milieu of the adjacent forest dwellers and re-structure to accommodate the daily needs of the local communities who are not as destructive as commercial loggers, charcoal burners or big-game poachers.

Monochronic Cultures and Polychronic Cultures

The terms monochron and polychron refer to how we perceive and manage time. Polychrons see time as an endless river, flowing from the infinite past, through the present, into the infinite future. Monochrons see time as discrete, not continuous. They see time as being divided into seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, and so on. According to Hall, most cultures from the West are traditionally monochromic. In such cultures time is thought of as being linear. This is the mind-set of conservation campaign strategist at Arabuko. Their conservation-communication strategy is linear, expert-driven, non-negotiable and controlled by a time-line. People are expected to do one thing at a time, and will not tolerate lateness or interruptions. The approach is not participatory; and people are expected to wholly adopt new ideas and innovations. In cases where the program is late or adoption fails, the people are labeled as primitive, illiterate and anti-development.

Adjacent forest dwellers consider a calendar or timetable to be less important than interpersonal relations. So they will, for example, be glad to stop what they are doing to attend a funeral, a wedding or such like rituals. To them, all time is the same, and they tend not to separate their work time from their personal time. There is no one “correct” (my way) way to think about time and neither extreme is right or wrong.

External social change agents, especially international players in the conservation industry, should understand that they are just different. There is need to accommodate the adjacent forest dwellers’ perceptions of time. Being a polychron, I have effectively conducted my life affairs for eight years in the U.S., a monochron country. I really enjoyed my life a lot more than the majority of monochrons, who lived in strict-time lines and day-tight compartments that rarely seemed to let them relax and just be who they really are.

Individualism and Collectivism

The construct often used to explain similarities and differences between cultures is individualism versus collectivism. Individualism emerges in societies that are both complex and loose; collectivism arises in societies that are both simple and tight. From personal experiences in the U.S., individuals in the West see “uniqueness” as desirable, whereas in rural Kenya it is often seen as “deviance”; in the West “conformity” is sometimes seen as undesirable but among grassroots people it is seen as “harmony.”

In the West, people are more competitive and emphasize self-fulfilment. This tends to promote a notion that ‘we can destroy and again rebuild nature. The discourse around animal sanctuaries and re-wilding or afforestation campaigns to reclaim degraded land are prime examples. Adjacent forest dwellers at Arabuko-Sokoke, like most rural Kenyan cultures, are more cooperative and stress the experience of living. They are more concerned with getting along with others and living harmoniously, or symbiotically with nature because they are aware of their dependence on nature. They know that if they destroy nature, nature will destroy them. They change themselves to fit with nature as opposed to the West where individuals try to change the environment to fit them. Conservation communication campaigns should be sensitive to this attitude.

Cultural Differences and Power Distance

Linked to collectivism and also symbolizing rural Kenyan culture is the orientation of high power distance. Power distance is a description of the way a given society conducts itself in terms of equality. In low power distance societies such as the U S, egalitarianism is a primary value. People in the U.S do not place much emphasis on titles or ceremony, and other outward displays of power. In contrast, Kenyans consider such practices as very important. At Arabuko-Sokoke, the power hierarchy is clearly delineated. Excessive deference to government officials and other players in the conservation industry by the adjacent forest dwellers is a compulsion. This aspect, arising more from unacknowledged cultural differences rather than deliberate coercion, has led to disempowerment of the local communities.

Just like white people are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, and males are taught not to recognize male privilege; most educated, middle-class, urban, Kenyans are taught not to recognize cultural differences arising from socio-economic status.  Government officials and international conservationists at Arabuko need to appreciate this invisible weightless backpack of special provision which they carry around.

There is now an enormous focus on consultants dropping in and out of communities, groups and nations. They bring their expertise and apply it pretty much a-contextually and are paid a lot of money for doing so, and they leave. Culturally inappropriate messages are constructed because the international workers are not familiar with the culture, and the national workers they hire are likely to be western educated. Participatory forest management mechanisms should be re-structured to create entry points for listening to what adjacent forest dwellers have to say, respecting their culture, beliefs, values and attitude. Conservation efforts must be based on trust in the local people’s capacity to contribute and participate actively in the task of transforming themselves and their communities.

Emotional Expression and Suppression

The prompting of emotion is often culture-specific. Individualists are often high in emotional expression. From personal experiences, when Americans are asked to recall what made them angry, they remember mostly events that happened to them personally. But, when Africans are given that task, they remember mostly events that occur to other people. This self-focus versus other-focus is an important contrast between individualism and collectivism. Individuals from collective societies tend to suppress their emotions in order to save face.

The adjacent forest dwellers at Arabuko-Sokoke are communitarian, cohesive and interdependent. They control their expression of negative emotions because they fear disrupting relationships as opposed to individualistic cultures where interactions are more commonly high in emotional expression. They would rather remain silent than openly say, “No” to conservation campaigns “parachuted-in” by government agencies and conservationists. The result is lack of genuine participation where the outside experts conceptualize the local people as being empty receptacles that have to be filled with forest conservation knowledge and skills. The adjacent forest dwellers at Arabuko-Sokoke are intelligent; they have bountiful indigenous knowledge and skills on conservation of biodiversity and can be active agents in conservation when provided with an enabling environment where their culture is seen as a resource rather than a barrier.

Communication, Culture and Context

Communication is linked to culture, which is a people’s ways of life. Context, on the other hand, is the crucible in which meanings are contested, negotiated, and finally agreed upon—words find meanings in a particular context. Communication is involvement. If you get involved with a people, you can as a general rule communicate better. International conservationists, as well as young graduates from our universities who come to work in grassroots communities should spend a certain amount of time purposefully getting to know their host culture from the inside. I am talking about light duties or none at all for the first few months; go on homestays; and work on the ground in the field. From such a position, they can start to conceptualize and design sound conservation and development communication campaigns that resonate with a sense of a community’s culture. Instead of imposing conservation interventions on the people, the focus should be to understand how conservation-communication processes are enacted among adjacent forest dwellers; to listen to the narratives that come out of local communities as members engage with their limited resources, to make meanings of conservation and their lives, and to introduce the co-created scripts into the mainstream discursive structures where they have been ignored.

By Dr Leonard Mjomba Majalia,

The author is Lecturer, Taita Taveta University


Anderson, Jon, Shreya Mehta, Edna Epelu, and Brian Cohen. “Managing Leftovers: Does Community Forestry Increase Secure and Equitable Access to Valuable Resources for the Rural Poor?” The Politics of Community Forestry in a Global Age — A Critical Analysis 58 (September 2015): 47–55.

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