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Feature - Issue #13

The Forest is Life: Reviving Benin’s Sacred Groves

Introduction by Carlotta Byrne
Illustrations by Tim Hawkins

We are living through multiple, intertwined crises - from climate change and biodiversity loss to gross inequality. The cultural historian Thomas Berry believed the roots of these crises lie, ultimately, in a crisis of our imagination; in the story we tell ourselves about who we are and our place in the world. This is perhaps why, for many, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the industrial growth economy.

Berry reminded us that civilisations which grow rapidly by destroying their life support system, collapse rapidly too. As a philosopher, he proposed that we transform from a human-centred to an Earth-centred way of seeing and being in the world - from breaking to complying with the inherent, living laws and limits of life on our planet. This is what he called Earth Jurisprudence. Our planet, as Berry said in Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community, is "a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects". These subjects - plants, animals, water, soil and minerals - exist in a dynamic relationship to one another, within a living, self-regulating system. This jurisprudence considers humans an inextricable part of nature.

The present international legal system is, in large part, based on a jurisprudence developed during the industrial era to serve colonists, industrialists and corporations. This western jurisprudence is anthropocentric, considering humans to be separate from and superior to nature, which is simply something we can use or abuse without consequence. As a result, the laws stemming from it have been used to legitimise nature's destruction. To comply with Earth’s laws, we must know Mother Earth. This requires us to relearn eco-literacy after generations of disconnection from nature.

Earth Jurisprudence is the guiding principle underpinning Indigenous customary governance systems, cultural traditions and cosmovisions that have sustained communities for millennia. Indigenous Peoples who organise themselves according to these fundamental ecological laws still demonstrate a deep-rooted relationship with Earth, despite the industrial onslaught.

Embracing Earth Jurisprudence means continually decolonising our minds from the destructive stories we are fed daily by corporate powers and political interests. Staying conscious can hold us steady in turbulent times, bring clarity in the midst of confusion, and build bridges between species, races, religions and generations.

The Gaia Foundation runs a unique, UN-recognised course for African leaders who are reviving Indigenous lifeways. Graduate Appolinaire OUSSOU LIO is a founding member of the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective, a community of practitioners across the continent. Using holistic methodologies such as elder-centred community dialogues and eco-cultural mapping - learnt from Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon - they are accompanying local communities on a journey of decolonisation, by remembering and enhancing their Indigenous knowledge, practices and governance systems. This work is a testament to the fact that alternatives to our dominant industrial growth economy already exist.

A long time ago, when our great, great grandparents migrated from Togo to Benin, they chose to settle in the forests here and make them their traditional home. In those days the forests were very big, with a diversity of animals and plants. Our people built up a knowledge of these forests including the kinds of sacred and medicinal plants that exist here. They found ways to live in the forests without destroying them.

Where I live in Avrankou, in the south-east of Benin, each family and community would have had its own sacred groves within these forests that they were responsible for taking care of. These sacred groves were places to connect with spirits and ancestors, to conduct initiations and to go and seek medicinal plants when sickness struck.

Our houses were built near the groves, and the groves were all connected to our rivers, where we would go to wash and purify ourselves. In our case, it is the Zèkpon River and the Black River, which we are currently working to restore. This is a very powerful river whose water was used to reconnect people and for rituals of protection.

Everyone in the community had several totems. We have collective totems which are traditional laws set up by our ancestors. These totems are passed on from generation to generation. After birth, each person receives their totems following consultation with the diviner. For example, I am not allowed to cut certain types of trees down because they are my totems and I am forbidden to damage them. The same goes for many of the animals in the forest. There are principles and rules we must follow because the forest is our home, our living and sacred home.

In Benin, our ancestral religion is Vodun, or what some people call Voodoo. It has been portrayed as an evil religion, but Vodun is just a religion that focuses on air, earth, fire and water. It is a religion of the Earth. Each element has significance to us, and all of our beliefs ultimately go back to the sacred forests where we have lived, prayed and cured ourselves for generations.

These forests have protected us during the worst times in our history. Benin was a prominent slave port in Africa from 15th to the 18th century, and millions of enslaved people passed through. When the white slavers came to the villages near the coast, the elders would tell the young people: “Run to the forest! Go!”

The forests were so large and dense that the slavers didn’t know how to enter them or navigate through the forests. People would stay there until the slavers had gone. They knew that if they went back home, they would be captured.

When the white men realised that they couldn’t get through the forests, they would try to hire local men to do the job. On many occasions, we were told that these men refused to enter the sacred forests. They were afraid because we know that if you are not initiated into that forest, even if you are strong, and violate it, you can just disappear. So, these forests were a very good way to protect ourselves when the slavers came.

We have now lost so much of our forests in Benin. There are a lot of reasons for that but one of the first and most important is the religious colonisation that has happened here. On 18 April 1861, the priests of the Society of African Missions set foot in Dahomey (present-day Benin). This was the beginning of Christianity in Benin . People who had converted were told that the sacred forest was where witchcraft was practiced. They said that to stop this, the forests had to be destroyed. And in the place of our old sacred groves, they built churches.

A lot of people fought hard against this, they still do. But more and more people these days belong to other religions and they no longer see our remaining forests as sacred. And when you don’t see something as sacred, you don’t protect it.

Our forests were already dwindling when Benin went through a communist revolution in 1972 and our country became known as the People’s Republic of Benin. At that time, the government told us anything we cannot distribute is bad for the revolution. They also said that they were against what they called witchcraft. This had a bad effect on our forests and the communities who were their custodians, as did the corruption and human rights abuses of that time. Many of our oldest sacred trees and groves were destroyed. I was born in 1972, the year the revolution began, and since then we have lost more than 48% of our forests.

The People’s Republic of Benin ended in 1990. But today we still have one of the highest deforestation rates anywhere in the world. Nowadays, a lot of deforestation is caused by agricultural practices that are eating up more and more land. In my village, until recently, our sacred grove was just half a hectare in size - that’s just over half the size of a football pitch. This grove is connected to five other small surviving areas of forest along the Zèkpon and Black River in Avrankou. Our urgent task is to try and restore, expand and reconnect these sacred groves.

We have been working to do this for many years. I started an organisation called GRABE-Benin which was part of efforts to convince our government to adopt a new ‘Sacred Forest Law’. When this was passed in 2012, it became a legal first in Africa, recognising that our sacred forests should be protected and that communities like mine are the rightful custodians of these special places.

Since then we have been on a long road towards restoring both our forests and the communities that should be looking after them. We have to heal both at the same time, because it was once humans who cared for these forests, and then it was humans who destroyed them.

In Avrankou, we are now holding community dialogues around many of our sacred groves as a way to remember the old ways and rituals, and to help the communities bring back the memory of traditional ways of living in harmony with the forests.

I am a Chief in my region and I can say that these dialogues have helped solve a lot of problems in the communities I am working with. Through these processes, we have negotiated how to increase the size of our sacred groves. Between us, we have started Indigenous tree nurseries so that we have a supply of trees to replant and expand the groves. We also use these trees to plant natural fences that protect the groves from encroachment while we work to expand them. We are promoting forest agroecology instead of damaging agriculture that uses chemicals and encourages deforestation. This is also good for all the pollinating insects, as well as the river and wetlands nearby our farms.

There are still conflicts, but we are helping people to see why they should respect the groves and the people who go there. Lots of people in our communities still go to church so we are working to help them understand why and how our forests are sacred places for men, women, young people and elders. This makes them less afraid.

Meanwhile, for those who still follow, and want to follow our traditional ways, we are bringing back the memories of how we would go to our sacred groves and how we would treat the forests and the animals within them. A good example is the python. The python is a very sacred animal to us - we believe they are our ancestors. But people sometimes go into the forests and kill them because they are afraid of them or they want to eat them. Through our dialogues with knowledgeable elders, we educate ourselves about what significance the python has for us, what it provides and why it is sacred. It is the same with the trees, the insects and the medicinal plants. In these dialogues, we learn how we must change the way we have been treating these beings.

We are now seeing the benefits of this work. In my village, our sacred grove has doubled in size to over one hectare. We are seeing pythons back in that grove and more insects, too. We are doing similar work all along the Zèkpon and Black River and at the other four sacred groves here. We are reaching out to the people who own the land around our groves to convince them to help us expand them further.

Sometimes they don't believe in what we do. They want to sell their land or use a harmful kind of agriculture. We continue with the dialogues anyway, knowing these are not one-day solutions. We start little by little. We bring young people and elders together to learn. We continue to fight for all those communities we work with. They are the people who will protect our forests now and in the future.

My hope is to bring life back to expanding forests in Avrankou and across Benin. I want to see people in those groves practicing their rituals and building their connection to those places. I want future generations to have a chance to see a lot of animals, medicinal plants and very beautiful trees in these groves. I want our ancestral way of living in and protecting our forests to be carried into the future. The forest is life. We must protect it together.

If you’d like to find out more you can watch the Rooting for the Future animation. You can find out more about The Gaia Foundation’s work, and Appolinaire OUSSOU LIO’s organisation GRABE-BENIN. You can also sign up to Earth Jurisprudence updates (occasional emails with Earth-centred news).

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