top of page

Biodiversity conservation in Africa: the contribution of cultural beliefs

Many African communities, through their beliefs and ritual practices, have contributed to the preservation of biodiversity, including the conservation of some elements of nature. Even if this tends to become less important and threatened in the face of modernity, their impact on the environment is no longer in question. However, how can these socio-cultural beliefs and practices be useful today to influence environmental legislation in these countries?

Elements of nature have been conserved through socio-cultural practices that are still perpetuated today in different African countries. Although the ways of managing biodiversitý vary from one region to another, depending on the peoples and ethnic groups, these ancestral practices that have long contributed to the preservation of the environment of these different populations are not yet officially recognised or framed by a legal system in the countries concerned.

In the center-west of Côte d'Ivoire, in Gbétitapéa, research has shown the socio-cultural and economic importance of forest fragments for local populations. Indeed, a study has demonstrated the importance of the monkeys of the forest fragments for the population of this locality. These so-called sacred primates and their habitats are protected by the indigenous people of Gbétitapéa. Thus, the forest, which has become sacred, and the monkeys constitute an example of biodiversity preservation, explained the authors of this research. "A better understanding of cultural practices could show the importance (...) of sacred sites in order to provide for sustainable management of forest ecosystems. And this requires the adoption of legal texts.

For Hilaire Gomé Gnohité, president of the Ivorian NGO Green Cross, it is true that there is a cult, myth or mystery surrounding these forests. And "considering these different elements, one could say that these sacred forests no longer needed special protection, but this is not true. There are three reasons for this. The first reason is demographic pressure.

"You know that the Ivory Coast has a 3.5% increase in population, 35% immigration and the land is not expandable. So, the population is growing, and the land remains the same. So, there is a frantic race for arable land. This is already the first danger. Secondly, there is the school: today's school means that children, young people, and managers no longer believe in all these questions of myth, mysticism, and sacredness around these forests. So, they are going to be preoccupied with economic issues, so they are going to sweep away what was protecting these forests, i.e., the myth and the sacred. The third reason is religion," he explains.

For him, there is Islam and Christianity, which today are desecrating all that. "But our objective is to show people that you can be a Christian or a Muslim and protect sacred forests. Because what we are protecting above all is the wealth of biodiversity. Since, traditionally, these sacred spaces and sites are not fenced in. It is therefore necessary to find regulatory or legal mechanisms for the preservation and conservation of these places, explained the president of the Green Cross NGO.

However, in its National Environment Policy document, published in 2011, the Ivorian government integrates environmental concerns in the aspect of tourism and cultural promotion, without further details on the legislation that should frame this. The strategies envisaged are: "The institution of measures to protect natural resources and works of art against degradation and looting; the development and sustainable use of tourist sites and the promotion of ecotourism; the protection and enhancement of the natural and cultural heritage, particularly traditional technologies, historical monuments and natural sites for tourism purposes. No law has yet been established for the preservation of so-called sacred sites.

In Africa, forests, woods, sacred sites, and groves represent an important sphere of identity for many local populations. Their preservation serves as an account or testimony of past practices and customs, but above all as answers to the metaphysical beliefs of the present. In Fouta Djallon in Guinea, village forests and groves have, since ancient times, been protected from exploitation by the 'sages' of the villages, reports Marcel Sow in 'Pratiques culturelles et conservation de la biodiversité en Guinée'. Some plant species benefit from special protection and are even spared by the populations during deforestation for cultivation. This situation is the result of thoughts and beliefs transmitted from generation to generation and the formulation of mythical versions to prevent the destruction of biodiversity. These instructions are religiously respected by all the inhabitants of the village.

The existence of sacred areas, dedicated to rituals, forbidden to access to the profane, is a great source of preservation of the environment and biodiversity. The establishment of sanctuaries and the rites that take place in forests and water bodies have allowed the survival of natural resources in several localities in Africa. Botanists have revealed, following a study of the 37,000 hectares of sacred forests in Côte d'Ivoire, that 75% of the country's biodiversity is found there. This means that the value is not necessarily in terms of surface area but in terms of richness in biodiversity. It must therefore be said that socio-cultural instructions and beliefs still spare part of the resources of these natural sites from any form of exploitation. However, for how much longer if no legal alternative for their preservation is adopted?

Personifying natural entities to save the environment and biodiversity in Africa

In Burkina Faso, in Bobo-Dioulasso, the Houet marigot, a tributary of the Kou River, crosses the city's interior from north to south. It is home to silurid fish, which have been considered sacred by the local population for centuries, according to the local people. Despite the urbanization of the city, this marigot has contributed to the preservation of a green lung in the heart of Bobo-Dioulasso and the survival of an ecosystem around these fish. Unfortunately, the Houet marigot and its biotopes are increasingly threatened by human activities, as this site has not yet acquired a status like that of Whanganui, in New Zealand.

Indeed, the choice of the New Zealand Parliament to grant legal status to the Maori river, Whanganui, is a salvation for its preservation and should inspire many African countries. While some traditional practices still need to be given a chance, by giving them more power to continue in the preservation of biodiversity, it is crucial that many natural sites in Africa can also benefit from legislation that fully protects them, like those obtained by the Maori people in 2017.

The study on the socio-cultural importance of the Gbétitapéa monkeys in Côte d'Ivoire revealed very well that the sacredness of the environment would seem to be genuine, as the latter, by its very essence, places great importance on its preservation. Therefore "it would be necessary to direct research on the origin, the goals and above all the place of the sacred places of traditional societies" to find mechanisms to integrate them into the rights of nature of modern African states. This means bringing respect for nature back to the center of human life.

This is also the sense in which Pierre Brunet writes, for whom "the idea of recognizing the rights of natural entities does not date from yesterday". He specifies that beyond the divergences that exist among the supporters of the "rights of nature", they all agree on the objective of breaking with an anthropocentric conception of the relationship between humans and nature, which makes the latter just an object or a resource. "They intend to give nature the status of a subject and recognize its intrinsic value. This means "simply extending the boundaries of the community to include the soil, water, plants and animals, or collectively, the land", adds Aldo Leopold.

In many traditional African communities, the various traditional beliefs and practices show that all these conceptions of the relationship between man and nature are not new. The populations have in their social organisation, the principles of sustainable development in their relationship with nature.

Preserving natural entities therefore requires the support of these traditions, customs, and beliefs, while integrating the achievements of traditional environmental ethics into the legislative and regulatory framework of African states.

Belélé Jérôme William Bationo


bottom of page