«By Erika B. Kraus Submitted to the graduate degree program in African and African-American Studies and the Graduate Faculty of the University of ...»
People and Forests: a Case Study from Bénin, West Africa
Erika B. Kraus
Submitted to the graduate degree program in African and African-American Studies and the
Graduate Faculty of the University of Kansas in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the
degree of Master of Arts.
Chairperson, Beverly Mack, Ph.D.
Peter Ukpokodu, Ph.D.
Shawn Alexander, Ph.D.
Date Defended: 10 April 2012
The Thesis Committee for Erika B. Kraus certifies that this is the approved version of the
People and Forests: a Case Study from Bénin, West Africa Chairperson Beverly Mack, Ph.D.
Date approved: 10 April 2012 iii
The purpose of this work is to demonstrate how sacred forests in Benin, West Africa, contribute to forest conservation. Local use of natural resources is well-practiced in maintaining wooded space; the same use of those resources allows for modifications in the landscape as the community requires through ritual processes. Sacred groves and the biodiversity they harbor expand and contract in relation to communication between the people and spiritual entities. The framework employed contextualizes the case study of sacred forests in Athiémé, Bénin, from experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the social, geologic, historic, and religious aspects of the society. This position allows for further exploration in the field of forestry on themes of patch dynamics and source-sinks, and sacred groves’ roles in biodiversity of non-government regulated lands.
Most grateful thanks to my colleagues in Athiémé, Bénin, who facilitated the projects discussed in this work, especially Ghislain Zinsou, president of As.P.E.L., and the librarian and director of CLAC Athiémé. Many thanks to Dr. Beverly Mack for reading and re-reading and always providing positive, useful and constructive feedback, as well as the supportive faculty, staff, and fellow students in the African and African-American Studies Depar
Overview: Situating the Reader in Bénin
United States Peace Corps: Environmental Action Sector
Sacred forests in history
Vodoun of Sacred Forests
The Sanctity of the Forests
Studies in Biodiversity
Addendum A: History of Athiémé
Addendum B: Video contents
Addendum C: Schematic plan of Athiémé and Reforestation Project forests
Addendum D: fâ consultation
Addendum E: chart of surviving trees
Index of figures:
Figure 1. Levels of spiritual interaction in towns and villages in relation to outlying areas.
(Drawn by Erika Kraus, some concepts reiterated in Sharpe 1998)
Figure 2. Cycle of community membership.
(Figure drawn by Erika Kraus, based on lectures from Dr. Peter Ukpokodu (2011) and text of John S. Mbiti (1989).
Figure 3. Plan of Athiémé, town center
Figure 4. Plan of Athiémé Reforestation Project forests.
Introduction The purpose of this work is to demonstrate how sacred forests in Benin, West Africa, contribute to forest conservation. Sacred forests are more than special groups of trees; they play a role in perpetuating social institutions, values, and biodiversity in the region. To accurately consider sacred forests in terms of resource conservation, sites must be understood in the context of the societies that sanctify them –studies should recognize why the trees are sanctified. Once the reasons for the sacred grove’s existence are extrapolated, the motivations and perceptions of biodiversity and resource conservation can be approached through relevant lenses.
Deforestation due to human pressure is common knowledge in the field of conservation.
International attention to salvage the remaining traces of natural vegetation has ultimately removed local populations from the presence of the natural resources upon which they rely.
However, research that incorporates studies on the context of local people provides grounds to argue that indigenous use is dynamic, neither harmful nor symbiotic. Traditional, local use of natural resources is well-practiced in maintaining wooded space; the same use of those resources allows for modifications in the landscape as the community requires through ritual processes.
Through this type of non-governmentally administered management, sacred groves and the biodiversity they harbor expand and contract in relation to communication between the people and spiritual entities.
This work is based on my experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Athiémé, a small town on the Mono River in the southwest of Bénin. The framework is to contextualize the case study of sacred forests in Athiémé, Bénin, in the social, geologic, historic, and religious aspects of the society. Having been trained in biology, I rely on a narrative-descriptive form of writing rather than a methodological framework from anthropology, sociology, history, or any other social science.
The majority of the evidence for the argument in this work comes from first-hand knowledge during my tenure in Bénin when I lived and worked in Athiémé for three years. In particular, I utilize the experiences from two projects: a collection of the history of Athiémé from residents of the town, and the dialogue captured in a video of a reforestation project. I also rely on literature to reinforce the examples from first-hand experience. These include: the collection of articles by Michael Sheridan and Celia Nyamweru called African Sacred Groves: Ecological Dynamics and Social Change (2008), the book Reframing Deforestation; Global analyses and local realities: studies in West Africa (1998) by James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, and publications from biologists who work in the universities in Togo and Bénin, respectively.
A brief introduction to the human and geographic history situates the reader in the nation.
After this overview, the next section discusses the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial elements of Beninese history that relate to sacred groves. A short discussion of Anthony Giddens’ Structuration Theory demonstrates the sociological processes that create and maintain the groves. Following that, the philosophy of the sanctification of wooded areas describes some of the religious practices in Athiémé. The final section describes the present biodiversity of the forests, and communicates the importance of respecting endogenous practices. Such information positions this case study from south-west Bénin for further exploration in the field of forestry on themes of patch dynamics and source-sinks, and sacred groves’ roles in biodiversity of nongovernment regulated lands.
Overview: Situating the Reader in Bénin United States Peace Corps: Environmental Action Sector I joined the United States Peace Corps as an Environmental Action Volunteer in July, 2005, having just finished undergraduate studies in Biology and French in May of the same year.
I wanted to experience a different way of life and develop my French language ability. I was unfamiliar with the West African coast until some months before I was assigned there by Peace Corps Headquarters. As an Environmental Volunteer, I was introduced to the phenomenon of the Dahomey Gap and its effect on the cultivation cycle in Bénin1. I learned the names and typical usages of common tree species, and studied the most prevalent environmental problems: soil erosion, misuse of chemical fertilizer, decreased fallow rotation, etc.
I lived with a warm and accommodating host family, people with whom I continue regular communication. This family provided me with a comfortable living arrangement and all the food I could ever eat –they introduced me to the patterns and priorities of Beninese people, including eating and sleeping schedules and family ties. I lived with this family for eleven weeks before graduating to full Volunteer status. I then moved to Athiémé where I was to live alone and work for the following three years.
I collaborated with a number of residents of Athiémé, but two organizations occupied most of my time: the CLAC, or Centre de la Lecture et l’Animation Culturelle, or library and cultural center, and a non-governmental organization called As.P.E.L. (l’Association pour la This climate phenomena benefits the agricultural cycle in Benin by producing at least two harvests per year, at the end of two rainy seasons, whereas elsewhere along the coast and dense rainforest, there is only time for one cultivation cycle. The air currents at this point on the coastline also bring the Harmattan winds, which are the dry, dust-filled air from the Sahara.
These winds, when in full presence, block the sun and drastically reduce the humidity and air temperature of Bénin, effectively creating winter. (Personal communication with residents of Athiémé informed the author that one year, icy-rain fell, causing destruction of thatch roofs and demanding cold weather-wear for the general population that was not typically available.) Protection de l’Environnement et des Localités –the Association for Environmental and Areas Protection). With the librarian during the summer months of 2007, I organized school-aged children to collect historical information from the elders about Athiémé. Although this collection was compiled with the intent to print it, the project was neglected because of a lack of resources.
However, the draft form of the history is applied to this thesis, and is available in addendum A.
As.P.E.L. maintained a large vegetable garden and a tree nursery as a means of income for the group. After working with the members regularly for some time, I assisted in a number of environmental projects including rudimentary waste management and environmental education.
Another project with As.P.E.L. that captured my interests the most, and has motivated this study, was the project called Reboisons les forêts sacrées, or Reforesting Sacred Groves. This project happened during the early months of 2007, and a full version of the video’s contents can be found in addendum B.
The president of the NGO, Ghislain Zinsou, conceived the Reforestation Project and directed the details. I accompanied him throughout the project, including at the initial meetings with the religious leaders of the associated sacred forests. Five leaders accepted to participate in the project, one of whom was the chef féticheur, or religious leader, of the entire Mono state. The NGO members prepared 2000 trees of eight different species, allowing 500 saplings per forest.
Zinsou was remarkably knowledgeable about the germination of these eight indigenous tree species. Typically, tree nurseries supply buyers for large teak and acacia plantations, two species that sell readily for construction. By allowing indigenous species to occupy the space usually committed to saleable goods, his contribution in terms of knowledge and resources was unique and important.
The As.P.E.L. members nursed the seedlings until about a week before 1 June 2007, the national Tree Day. The participating communities demonstrated their commitment to the project by fetching the saplings and planting them. On the holiday itself, the members of As.P.E.L. and invited authorities from the forestry domain and the local government toured the site at Angiwedji, the nearest site to Athiémé, and where the community was actively planting. Due to time constraints, this was the only forest toured that day. The members of this tour group were invited again within two weeks to complete the tour. The video cameraman accompanied both days, producing the source that I reference repeatedly in this study. At the time of the recording (in 2007), I did not have a Master’s thesis in mind and was not collecting data for an academic research project; however, re-visiting the video for this academic work has made it an essential resource.
People As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bénin, I heard oral histories of the origins of people in the Mono River region. This river begins in the Atacora Mountains of north-west Bénin, and forms the border with Togo in the southern half of the nation for about 60 miles. The Adja in the Couffo, the northern part of the Mono state of Bénin, reported that they are the direct descendants of the mythical coupling between a princess and a panther in the town of Tado, in today’s Togo. They attest that all other people are ethnically derived from them and their language. Conversely, the predominant Fon group of southern Bénin related a similar story of origin but reversed the names, claiming that the Fon came first.
The Volta and Ouémé waterways today form the Ghana-Togo and Bénin-Nigeria borders, respectively. The distance between the mouths of the rivers is about 400 kilometers. The scholar A. Asiwaju forms a fair view of the people between the Volta and the Ouémé Rivers through a combination of linguistic studies, oral histories, and hindsight-projections of Beninese society from 20th century sources (1979, p. 16). Although there are many languages throughout this region, the majority of them are classified as Gbe (Nicolau-Parés, 2005, p. 71). Furthermore, the people refer to a common point of origin for their population: Tado, in today’s Togo.
Consequently, Asiwaju makes no distinction between the ethnicities of Gbe languages, and calls all of the people within the region the “Adja” (1979, p. 15).
Three distinct situations in the mid- to late-1700s affected the direction of the peopling of the region. First, the Kingdom of Dahomey, whose heart was Abomey in central Bénin, was a tributary to the Oyo of western Nigeria. The Fon people of Dahomey were not satisfied to be subsidiaries, and consequently they often revolted. This later caused a weak point in resistance to the French because these people, affected by the Dahomey-Oyo wars near the Ouémé River, sought French protection, effectively welcoming their future colonizers to the territory.