Mangroves are ecosystems that are essential for preserving the biodiversity and equilibrium of the environment. Yet they are under threat from human activity in many places on the planet. How can they be protected? In Togo and Benin, voodoo priests are sanctifying these natural spots. And it seems to be working miracles!
Sacred voodoo: a tool for preserving natural resources
Mangroves are an aquatic and terrestrial environment whose vegetation acts as a buffer between the sea and the continent; this means that they can slow the effects of tsunamis and high tides and preserve the coasts from erosion. They also capture carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. In addition to providing protection and attenuating climate change, mangroves are home to a diverse range of fauna and flora. The destruction of mangrove ecosystems is having more serious consequences than could be imagined at first glance.
Local and international stakeholders are taking action to preserve these mangroves, using very different approaches. One approach involves sacred rituals, used in many African societies to protect animal and plant species that are under threat. Here, sacred rituals are used in addition to awareness raising and training in the sensible, sustainable use of resources.
Mangroves are an aquatic and terrestrial environment whose vegetation acts as a buffer between the sea and the continent; this means that they can slow the effects of tsunamis and high tides and preserve the coasts from erosion.
The Forêt d’Assévé: an example of conservation that combines science and ritual
In Togo and many other West African countries, villages are under the authority of traditional chiefs and voodoo priests. Twelve kilometres from the capital, Lomé, the Forêt d’Assévé has been classified as "sacred" by the traditional and religious representatives, together with the administrative authorities and local NGOs; this is the result of an unusual experiment to preserve natural resources. The process used to protect this forest is rooted in the cultural context and based on preliminary mapping work that distinguished two separate forest zones:
- a central core, the hotbed of the reserve, where representations were placed of divinities who formally prohibit the cutting of wood;
- a less protected zone, which can only be exploited on certain days of the week; in this area, certain species of endangered fish cannot be fished and certain types of tree cannot be cut down.
Public ceremonies led by voodoo priests sanctify these locations to reinforce the rules established by the traditional chiefs, the guardians of traditions, and state the divine threat to anyone thinking of breaking the bans. If the rules are violated, the sanctions may include community service, a fine paid in kind (donation of a sheep) or a monetary fine. The sanction in the most serious cases may be permanent exclusion from the village.
Public ceremonies led by voodoo priests sanctify these locations to reinforce the rules established by the traditional chiefs, the guardians of traditions.
Gautier Amoussou, coordinator of the NGO Eco-Benin (partners of ULB-Coopération) which supported this process, explained, "In Benin's national mangrove management strategy, this procedure has clearly been communicated and recommended by the State as a tool that can be adopted in mangrove conservation projects. We have seen that this method has been used in other regions in the last ten years and led to the restoration of the mangrove ecosystems."
"Some might think that we are depriving the population of access to their resources, but in reality these restrictions allow the fish, crabs and crayfish to reproduce, which benefits everyone. The more protected mangrove zones there are, the more fish we will be able to catch. It is better to meet the needs of everyone than just one person," stated Basile Amoussou, resident and member of local association Doukpo-Bénin.
The more protected mangrove zones there are, the more fish we will be able to catch. It is better to meet the needs of everyone than just one person.
The Forêt d’Assévé is considered a model of successful conservation. Although sacred rituals were involved in the process, they must be put into perspective, as many factors have contributed to this success. The success factors here include the active participation of the local administrative authorities, the capacity for dialogue between civil society stakeholders and the religious authorities, the work of the local NGOs, the increased awareness of the people, the distance from urban areas, which reduces anthropogenic pressure, and the large surface area of the forest which decreases the human impact!