| Implementing Agenda 21: NGO experiences from around the world |
by Mike Anane
Until recently our conception of knowledge was bound by the philosophy and methods of Western science-few people recognized that there are myriad sciences embedded in other cultures and civilizations. Unfortunately, attempts to find solutions to some problems afflicting the modern world have ignored religious and other cultural practices of indigenous people.
For example, environmental degradation has become a topical issue, and everyone has realized that the earth is gradually losing its capacity to sustain life. Evidence abounds of the steady deterioration of the earth, including atmospheric changes, air and water pollution, loss of species, use of pesticides, deforestation, declining soil fertility and the consequences of burgeoning population.
Scientific, political, geographical and economic-based attempts have been made to contain the alarming environmental crisis. However, the issue of culture, particularly traditional religious practices, generally has been ignored as having a role to play in conservation.
In Ghana, the National Environmental Action Plan (NEAP), which provides a coherent framework for interventions to turn environment and development efforts into more environmentally sustainable programmes and practices, regrettably does not highlight the potential of religion in this endeavour. UNCED's Agenda 21 also tucks away religion under the broad theme of traditional knowledge, culture and indigenous people, with the argument that traditional knowledge is related to the entire culture of a people, including its identity, spiritual and religious beliefs. This tendency unfortunately overlooks the immense potential of religion as a key to natural resource management and sustainable development because these terms do not take into account Western or orthodox religions. I have no doubt that they may also have a deep spiritual relationship with the earth and deep respect for it.
It is a pity that the world missed a golden opportunity at UNCED to include religious groups as part of the nine officially-agreed Major Groups. This would have helped bring together experts on both Western and traditional religion, who could have provided their perspectives and experiences to help find ways to support each other in their quest for solutions to local and global environmental problems.
However, it is gratifying that in Ghana today, some NGOs and scholars are recognizing the importance of various traditional religious beliefs or culturebased knowledge systems in addressing alaming problems of environment and development. Indeed consensus seems to be emerging that a new type of relationship or contract is needed among indigenous people, national governments and international development agencies. The old '`top-down" or paternalistic forms of development can no longer be enough in the face of environmental catastrophe. In this bid, some Ghanaian NGOs have already launched conservation projects with traditional religion playing indispensable roles.
NGOs and Religion
Friends of the Earth (FoE) Ghana recognized how traditional or customary social institutions are promoting biodiversity, conservation and sustainable development, and it launched the first project to conserve some sacred groves in the country as part of its biodiversity programme. These fetish or sacred groves are patches of forest ranging from 0.5 to 1500 hectares; they may consist of only a few trees, stones or rivers, which serve a variety of purposes, such as burial grounds for royal families or habitats of traditional gods or fetishes.
FoE, together with the local community, is working to conserve the Guako grove on the outskirts of Accra, the capital of Ghana. In its rescue bid, FoE has embarked on education campaigns to make people aware of the need to conserve the grove. It also established a nursery for restocking the grove with more trees, and planting is in progress.
In another area, a group of forest department workers in the Ashanti region decided to start an AGO to help communities protect sacred groves.
Today, the Ghana Association for the Conservation of Nature (Ghacon), not only has foresters as members but chiefs, community leaders, hunters, farmers, university lecturers and women's groups in some of the remote parts of the country.
Ghacon says most of the untouched forest cover of the Ashanti region is made up of sacred groves, with a few forest reserves protected by the government. However, vast stretches of surrounding forests have been torn down by farming activities and logging. Therefore, Ghacon conducted a nationwide survey of forest cover designated as sacred groves and decided to join hands with communities to protect them.
Ghacon advises the communities about the construction of firebelts to protect the groves from rampant bush fires from nearby farms during the dry season. Organizations such as the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the GTZ, a German technical assistance programme, have contributed significant funds to support Ghacon's activities to protect the groves.
Many of these indigenous areas, which were established centuries ago, are protected by customary laws and are considered to be abodes of the gods. In most cases, royalty from a particular village has been buried in the areas, which are protected out of respect for the dead.
In other cases, rivers and streams are treated as sacred: their catchment area and surrounding forests are protected in the belief that the river god lives in the forest. Logging, cultivation, or entry on certain days by women during their menstrual cycle is forbidden.
In certain parts of Ghana, forests are also venerated because they house a variety of wild animals that are considered sacred or totems. One example is the belief in a common ancestry with the leopard, which is the symbol of the Akan people. The forest in which these animals are found is sacred; killing this species is therefore not allowed. The benefits for conservation are clear.
Sacred Groves and Conservation
Sacred groves contribute greatly toward conservation of biodiversity. Originally, the groves were based on religious and cultural beliefs, but they have since made significant contributions to the protection of wildlife and other biological resources. For example, a monkey sanctuary, located within the moist forest deciduous zone, is richer than any other Ghanaian forest in terms of diverse types and rare species of monkeys, such as the Black and White Colobus and Mona monkeys. These species are considered sacred by the people of local villages. Here, the unharmed "children of the gods" have come daily for hundreds of years into the villages to eat and play. The sanctuary is also rich in trees, with about 125 known species, including the rare Pericopsis Elata, which is listed in Appendix 11 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
The Malshegu sacred grove in northern Ghana is another of the few remaining examples of non-riverine, closed canopy forest in the savanna. According to oral history, the Malshegu ancestors settled here in the early 18th century but did not find peace. They finally succeeded in warding off the marauding gangs of Arab slave raiders who were tormenting them and attributed this success to the spiritual support of a boulder under a baobab tree. The land surrounding the baobab tree was demarcated and labelled by the priest as fetish land in order to give the oracle a peaceful and shady home from where it could constantly oversee the village and the inhabitants. All forms of land use like farming and grazing were forbidden in the grove. The Lalshegu grove, which measures 0.8 hectares, is an isolated pocket of forest and stands in sharp contrast to its highly degraded surroundings. It now serves as a refuge for numerous indigenous animal species and seeds. Protection of the grove, which is a lush open canopy forest in a degraded open savannah, is the responsibility of the community. People firmly believe that the Kpalevorgu deity ensures fertility, protection, good rainfall and a bumper agriculture harvest.
Over 80% of sacred groves in Ghana serve as watersheds for catchment areas where they protect sources of drinking water. So far about 1.5% of Ghana's land is covered by some 2000 fetish groves, and most taboos and beliefs surrounding many of these groves are conservationist in nature and approach.
For example, the Asuo Akosua stream in the Ashanti region is believed to be inhabited by a beautiful woman goddess; the people worship the deity and carefully protect the water source of the stream. Farming activities are not allowed in this area, nor is clothes washing or other types of pollution.
These sacred groves are protected, conserved and maintained through a combination of taboos, prohibitions, beliefs and restrictions. Special members of the community organize periodic rituals, ancestral worship sessions and other customary rites. In almost all cases, burning, fuelwood gathering and tree felling are forbidden. These traditional religious beliefs and practices not only protect the sacred groves but also promote conservation of vegetation, which in turn promotes biodiversity and an ecological balance. The luxuriant green abundance of trees of different species and thick undergrowth in some parts of Ghana are living examples of what religion can do for conservation.
Lessons From the Past
Environmental conservation is not a recent phenomenon in indigenous African communities. Past generations knew about environmental degradation and the need for preservation. This knowledge found expression in traditional religious practices, because the African believes that everything belonging to the ecosystem and the environment has a strong spiritual meaning for humans. indeed the African's attitude to nature is deeply rooted in the belief that all things were created by the supreme being for a harmonious continuity and there must be a relationship of mutual obligations between all created things.
For example, natural phenomena were seen as possessing spiritual power, and the natural force that supplies food seen as superior and accorded respect and veneration. Certain trees could not be felled because they were considered Nyame Dua (God's trees) and therefore sacred and endowed with healing powers. Indiscriminate tree felling today was unheard of in the days when these traditional religious practices ensured the preservation of forests.
The Akans in Ghana saw land as a goddess, Asaose Yaa. On Thursdays and Fridays, one could not farm the land; this regulated human impact on the land, and thus secured its fertility. Land in these traditional societies belongs to clans and not to the individuals. Because the clan consists of both the living, the dead and even the unborn, it enhances the idea of sharing and caring for nature.
Generally, rivers and seas were also seen as abodes of the gods. As divinities, human activities that marred their beauty were considered taboo; therefore, pollution, industrial and human waste could not be discharged into these water bodies, or the culprits would be punished by the Abosomfo, or gods.
Sadly, despite the awareness of the indispensable role of religion in conservation and environmental protection, the good intentions of some NGOs and researchers to help revive these religious practices and conserve the groves and other sacred practices have been viewed with suspicion by certain indigenous communities. The communities might see the attempts as depriving them of their age-old traditional practices and replacing them with Western concepts. To many local people, the current Western buzzwords of "community empowerment" smack of outside interference, and they have justifiably resisted any attempts at empowerment.
Many conferences on sustainable development, including UNCED, have also persistently failed and even refused to acknowledge the role of religion in conservation and environmental protection, thus alienating indigenous people from the fight to save the environment. For many policy makers it's business as usual, and they tenaciously maintain the "top-down" approach to projects.
The Western Impact
Before the advent of colonization and Christianity and [slam, the African lived in harmony with nature. With the arrival of the white man, land that was collectively owned and managed by Africans was balkanized for individual ownership, with new and exotic crops introduced to feed the colonialist. Chemicals were poured into soils and rivers, virgin forests that had been preserved for their sacredness were raped by the colonial masters, and the trees that were felled were exported abroad.
Until recently, traditional religious practices were seen by our colonial masters as a hindrance to development. Missionaries who trooped to Africa alongside the colonial masters discouraged traditional practices, such as the worshipping of rivers, mountains and trees, which they described as idolatry and heathen.
Nevertheless, colonialism also had its good sides. The preservationist style of management of Africa's wildlife has its origins in the colonial period. Despite their economic interest in Africa, many Europeans viewed the continent as a "Garden of Eden," which provided them with the opportunity to experience a "wild and natural environment," which no longer existed in Europe. This resulted in a desire to maintain and preserve the wild and natural in Africa.
Accordingly, the first international conservation treaty, the Convention for the Preservation of Animals, was signed in London in 1900 and became the basis for colonial wildlife legislation in anglophone Africa. Subsequently, land was demarcated for national parks and game reserves, to protect large animal species and their habitat. This concern over the future of wildlife in Africa facilitated the creation of conservation organizations, such as the Wildlife Leadership Foundation and the World Wide Fund for Nature, which have continued to support African environmental organizations.
Once independence was attained, new African governments continued to maintain and expand the protected area systems; some legislation introduced during colonization still exists. indeed continuing government support for the preservationist attitude in many African countries today is a colonial legacy. A case in point is the Aburi Botanical Gardens near Accra. Established in 1875 by the British colonial government as a sanatorium for convalescent colonial officers, it became the first leading botanical museum in 1890 and still enjoys immense support from past and present Ghanaian governments.
Here again the paradox of colonialism is clear. In most cases, colonial decisions were taken without consideration of traditional land use systems and without the consent of local communities whose livelihoods were at stake. instead these communities were seen as a threat to wildlife and forests. So the colonial authorities prevented any human interference, and the local communities were deprived of access to pastures, farming land, fisheries and wildlife, which were resources they depended upon for their livelihood. Even hunting rights were denied to the indigenous people.
Not only was land first nationalized in colonial times, but the colonialists, in their desperation to protect wildlife in Africa, overlooked its traditional role in African culture, which is oriented toward contributing to survival and governed by totems, taboos and customs.
A critical look reveals that some of these places are managed by a council of elders who decide how the surrounding forest might be used, which trees to cut and why, and so on. Sadly, as the elders die off, the ancient traditions regarding the sacred groves are also dying. The younger generation do not seem to care much for customs and traditions and prefer to join the ruralurban exodus in search of white-collar jobs.
Christianity, science, poverty, Western education-none has succeeded in debunking the African belief in traditional religion. Most Western-educated Africans and Westerners flock to shrines in Africa whenever they are confronted with serious financial and social problems.
Clearly, traditional practices reveal that African societies were aware in the past of the need to protect their environment, which is shrouded in religious beliefs, partly because religion permeates virtually all aspects of African life. This awareness led to an environmental ethic, which implied using the spiritual world to protect the environment. Perhaps modern conservationists, policy makers and researchers, particularly in the West, should go back and learn from traditional religion and culture, which managed to live alongside the rivers and forests and use them sustainably. Myth is indeed more potent than history; indigenous people, who have lived harmoniously with nature, need to be encouraged to take charge of their own destinies. Ultimately, real progress lies in enabling the weak and the marginalized to become the producers of their bounty and welfare, not the beneficiaries of aid and recipients of charity.
Undoubtedly, religion is indispensable to modem-day conservation and environmental protection efforts. The Western world, which has long left its traditions behind and adopted lifestyles that have fumed its environment into one big sewer, should go back and revive its ancient religious traditions that compare favourably with those in Africa. This indeed is the true path to environmentally-sound and sustainable development.