The ongoing project “Incorporation of Sacred Forests into the Protected Areas System of Benin,” supported by UNDP and financed by GEF, preserves tracts of forest with religious and ecological significance in Benin. These sacred forests are at high risk, and the recent addition of Sacred Forest as a category of Benin’s protected areas legislation paves the way for greater protection of the forests included in the project scope as well as other forests around the country. This historic legislation is the first of its kind in Africa, and the legitimization of local religious beliefs builds community support for the project as well as contributing to conservation efforts. Impressive community demand for recognition of their local sacred forests in the national database has led community based organizations (CBOs) across the country to request assistance from the project team with developing forest management plans and achieving official boundary demarcation. The preservation of sacred forest groves maintains important ecological clusters and helps deter further habitat fragmentation.
Benin is home to a diverse array of landscapes including wildlife-rich savannah in the north, sparsely forested grazing lands, woodland savannah, and cotton plantations in the center, and agricultural land mixed with coastal lagoons in the south. Benin is also the birthplace of voodoo traditions and various forms of syncretic believes and practices involving nature. Across the country there are scattered patches of forest groves with cultural, religious, ethno-botanical, and conservation significance known as sacred forests. These sacred forests are home to spirits, gods, and ancestors, and have been preserved for centuries in the midst of highly managed agricultural areas. Emerging threats such as modernization, the loss of traditional values, and the need for more land put pressure on these groves, and many are severely degraded. The forests throughout Benin are extremely fragmented, and further forest loss would result in severe loss of biological diversity. The degradation and loss of these sacred forests also threatens traditional beliefs and cultural practices.
- Community mapping and signage: Community members and the project team walked the physical edges of the sacred forests together, and cement markers were places at the boundaries chosen through community consensus. Community engagement built support for the project, and the mutual accountability among community members also served as a powerful conflict resolution tool for land tenure disputes. The landmarks were then plotted as red dots in an aerial photo clearly showing the location and contour of the sacred forests, which often revealed green “islands” with taller trees than the surrounding landscape. A signboard provides the name and details of the sacred forest, which is also registered in a national database of sacred forests.
- Sacred forest legislation: The legal inclusion of sacred forests as a protected area category provides legitimacy for traditional beliefs and activities involving the forest as well as lending cultural support for forest conservation. Above all, it provides tenure security over a public good and regulates land use to avoid forest clearing and degradation.
- Stakeholder participation: The project engaged and collaborated with diverse stakeholder groups, including traditional healers, herbalists, students, local associations, resource managers, and decision makers including the Ministry of Environment and Nature Protection, the Ministry of Public Health, and the Association Nationale de Rois du Bénin.
- Management plan assistance: The project assisted communities in crafting simplified forest management plans appropriate to their cultural beliefs and consistent with ecological priorities. Many of the plans are not very costly to implement and have been adopted by local CBOs with support from local government.
- Conservation efforts can be highly effective when they support local cultural and religious values: The symbiotic goals of sacred forest preservation for religious purposes and of conservation of forest patches within highly fragmented habitat worked more effectively in concert than either would have independently, through community and government support of the objectives.
- Have a plan at the beginning for next steps once project is complete: This plan will necessarily evolve, but there must be a vision for how to end the project before moving onto future phases.
- Legal recognition of sacred forests as a category of protected area through Inter-Ministerial Order No. 0121/MEHU/MDGLAAT/DC/SGM/DGFRN/SA of 16 Nov, 2012. The Order establishes the definitions for sacred forests and related concepts; defines the management principles of sacred forests; defines the procedures for the legal recognition, integration, and withdrawal of a sacred forest from the commune’s forestry area; and outlines guidance on the protection and management of the sacred forest, including the rights and responsibilities of management bodies.
- 66 sacred forests are now official protected areas (surpassing a target of 58 sacred forests), and at least 14 more have initiated the process. Degradation and encroachment of these forests has been halted, and visible boundaries have been demarcated for all of the target 58 sacred forests. Completion of baseline surveys increased local awareness of endangered species and conservation.
- Establishment of shared governance model with forestry administration, municipalities, and village communities for the management of all sacred forests.
- Partnership with research organizations to determine the best and most sustainable techniques for native plant species use, and how to protect and propagate threatened species.
- Management structures established for 66 sacred forests through participatory process with stakeholders at institutional, municipal, and local levels.