GRABE-Benin and The Gaia Foundation are pleased to share a much awaited English translation of the 2012 Beninese law recognising sacred forests and their custodian communities. This significant precedent for the legal recognition and protection of Sacred Natural Sites is the first of its kind in Africa.
In 2012, civil society and communities successfully lobbied the Benin Government to pass a national law (Interministerial Order No.0121) for the sustainable ‘management’, legal recognition, and integration of sacred forests as protected areas.
The law recognises sacred forests and sites where gods, spirits and ancestors reside, and that communities protect and govern sacred forests, and have a responsibility for implementing the ‘management’ plan for the forest.
This milestone is a first in Africa, and among the few laws in the world to recognise Sacred Natural Sites (SNS) and the communities as the custodians who govern and protect these places. Legal recognition of Sacred Natural Sites is particularly timely given their increasing erosion by ‘development’, commercial/chemical agriculture, climate change, and the ever growing threat of mining.
The Benin law is another important contribution towards a body of international law which recognises Sacred Natural Sites as ‘No Go Areas’ for mining, extractive industries and other destructive development; and communities’ customary governance systems, based on Earth’s laws, as part of Africa’s plural legal systems.
GRABE-Benin and the Gaia Foundation have translated the text of the Benin law from French into English (an unofficial version), with support from the African Biodiversity Network. This document aims to serve as an educational and advocacy tool for other communities and civil society, inspiring and supporting the establishment of similar precedents elsewhere for the recognition of Sacred Natural Sites and their custodian communities.
You can read the law in English here: Benin Sacred Forest Law. We encourage you to share this wonderful precedent with your networks.
The Gaia Foundation has been working internationally with partners and communities to ensure that Sacred Natural Sites and Territories, and their custodians are protected. Our 2012 film Sacred Voices brings this work to life in the words of eight Sacred Natural Sites Custodians from across Africa. In the film, Sacred Site Custodian Sabella Kaguna from Tharaka, Kenya, explains the importance of her community’s Sacred Site and how it is threatened:
“Sacred Sites are living places. They have their on feelings, just like humans. Their own heart. Just like humans they can get upset or sad. When we go to our Sacred Site we communicate with our ancestors. Only when they are not at peace does that communication stop… one of the main threats to our Sacred Site is from a (Kenyan) Government proposal to build a museum inside our Sacred Site. We are very worried about this plan. These decisions are made from places of great power, we feel powerless to stop them, but I want them to hear this: These proposals will never make us happy. They will bring sadness to our communities “
Interaction between community custodians and Sacred Natural Sites- including in the the form of rituals, celebration, and learning by observation-helps maintain the balance of ecosystems by orientating communities’ customary governance systems so that they comply with the unwritten laws of Nature. Respecting the rights of Sacred Natural Sites not to be degraded or ‘developed’ therefore has profound significance for the health of local ecosystems, lives and cultures that depend on them in Benin and beyond.
To learn more about how communities are defending their Sacred Natural Sites and Territories explore here.
‘In the beginning there was Nature; culture and indigenous knowledge come from nature. Nature cannot be protected in a sustainable way without the culture of that place. The erosion of culture leads to the destruction of Nature. It is critical to conserve the culture and knowledge of our ancestors for good ecological governance in service of Nature.’ Appolinaire Oussou-Lio, Founder and Director of GRABE-Benin
GRABE Benin, a local NGO which supports the community governance of ecosystems in Benin, played a significant role in advising and contributing to the research and development of the national law, as well as to its implementation at the muncipal and local levels in Avrankou, Adjarra and Adjohoun.
Strong community cohesion, GRABE-Benin’s deep understanding of the socio-cultural realities and knowledge of the local languages, and good relations with the traditional chiefs and government have been critical in establishing this precedent.
GRABE-Benin continues to accompany communities in Avrankou, Adjarra and Adjohoun to revive and practice their traditional knowledge, culture and customary governance systems in order to protect a network of Sacred Natural Sites. Together they plan to apply for legal recognition of several sacred forests and the communities’ rights to govern these places.
GRABE-Benin has commissioned a report, with assistance from the Gaia Foundation and African Biodiversity Network, to analyse the strengths and challenges of the Sacred Forest Law and other Benin laws in recognising and supporting community governance and protection of Sacred Natural Sites. We will keep you posted on its publication.