“Ecosystems are being destroyed because Africans have severed their relationship between ecosystems and spirituality. It is very very important for people to reintroduce that link, that relationship between themselves and the ecosystems, and then their spirituality becomes the key pillar in joining the two”
– Gathuru Mburu (Institute for Culture and Ecology, Kenya)
In 2012, the small west African country of Benin became the first in the continent to enshrine the spiritual significance of land into national law – the Sacred Forest Law. This legislation acknowledges not only the cultural value of these forests, but also the efficacy of which local culture protects them.
Sadly, the government of Cameroon does not recognise the same connection between Nature and Culture: no sacred lands are recognised by law, and whilst some community forests do exist, 100% of the land belongs to the state, with no local or indigenous land rights.
This doesn’t mean, however, that the link between Nature and Culture in Cameroon is lacking. It is one of most biologically and culturally diverse countries in the world, and this is not a coincidence. From the Mbororo pastoralists in the Extreme North province who emphasise the importance of “all the other species who don’t talk”, to the locally-designated sacred forests in the Anglophone North-West province, where village elders will venture and stay for many days to ask the gods who shall be the next king.
For the indigenous Baka people in the rainforested southeastern part of the country, the notion of a ‘sacred forest’ does not exist. They live in the forest and all aspects of their life involve the forest so there cannot be a forest ‘out there’ which is separate from everything else. The Baka are the centre of my PhD research in Cameroon because, whilst there are many different forest peoples here, the Baka are the ones most closely connected with the forest both physically and culturally, the ones that still rely on the forest the most for all parts of their lives, as well as the ones who are suffering the most from human rights abuses and erosion of their way of life. Having now spent months living in the forest with one Baka community, it is more clear to me how spirituality serves to connect them to the forest as well as each other.
As Gathuru Mburu eloquently mentions above, spirituality tends to be the common mechanism that connects indigenous Africans to their environments. And as we’re talking about indigenous Africans, this connection must be very old indeed in the human species. A genetic study carried out in 2008 found that the BaYaka, the broad group of Central African hunter-gatherers of which the Baka are part, are the second oldest human group still in existence today after the San people of the Kalahari.
Justin Kendrick, commenting on the relationship between the Mbuti hunter-gatherers in DRC and their forest, points out “the forest is not sacred in itself: the interactions of past generations with the forest render it sacred”. For the Baka, akin to the Mbuti, the forest is not worshipped as a sacred place, but rather its their interaction with it that makes it a special. Traditionally, the Baka hold a set of rules known as Ekila which mediates their physical relationship with the forest, and connects themselves and their social relations to the animals, spirits and features of the forest (read more about Ekila amongst the Mbendjele here).
Komba, the creator of all life, made the forest to be used, I was told by the Baka village healer Mangombe. He made it for the Baka to hunt and forage and to collect honey. However, this use requires that proper sharing is practised, not just between people utilising the resources, but between all beings that exist within the forest. I have been told many times by the Baka about the surprise and dismay they express when they see outsiders leaving the forest with many animals more than they could possibly eat. So, the views that the Baka of Bemba village hold are not against using what the forest has to offer, so long as it is shared with both humans and non-humans.
The interesting theme of what I’m observing is that the mentality that governs how the Baka of Bemba use and perceive the forest, is centred on the connectedness between them and the forest. The dominant global ideologies of a division between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ do not exist here, although with capitalist interests penetrating further into the Congo Basin, local cosmologies are changing.
In general, conservationists do not regard indigenous creation stories or spiritual beliefs as relevant to protecting wildlife, and even sometimes they are seen as an impediment to conservation because they are ‘unscientific’ and get in the way of learning ‘the facts’. Interestingly however, evidence is accumulating which shows that indigenous lands can be better at safeguarding biodiversity than conservation areas. And the link must be made that a large part of this success is because of the spiritual connection which such societies have with the world around them.
This is where ‘biocultural conservation’ comes in; the idea that biological and cultural diversity arise together, and that this relationship is not a coincidence. This theme goes against the prevailing trend globally: that of global homogeneity through globalisation and capitalism. This homogeneity is resulting in the majority of the world relying on only 3 crops to feed themselves, meaning that vast areas of biological diversity is disregarded to grow only 1 species (wheat, maize, or rice).
Food is just one example of the global homogeneity, but with it comes a disappearance of behaviours, rituals, languages, and beliefs. Including, of course, beliefs like that of the Baka which remind us all of how a different worldview can provide invaluable perspectives, a worldview which is perhaps the most ancient but which can offer the most effective solutions to contemporary environmental problems.