Appolinaire OUSSOU LIO is working with communities to restore the sacred forest groves that once rooted people to place. Marking today’s annual celebration of Vodun (Voodoo) culture in Benin, we share this new story of decolonisation from the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective.
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TREES AS TOTEMS
Today, Benin’s people celebrate their ancestral religion of Vodun, or Voodoo as others know it. Demonised by the colonialists and Christians who came to the country 500 years ago, Benin’s traditions were in fact a celebration of air, earth, fire, and water: an elemental hymn to Mother Earth.
‘ Vodun 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. Where I live in Avrankou, in the past each family and community would have had its own sacred groves that they were responsible for taking care of. For example, I am not allowed to cut certain types of tree because they are my totems. There are principles and rules we must follow because the forest is our home, our living and sacred home.’ Appolinaire OUSSOU LIO
This cosmology protected our planet. The invading western interpretation of Vodun, as witchcraft in the woods, undermined indigenous veneration for Nature and encouraged the destruction of forests previously held dear.
‘Trees have become, literally, totems of the clashes between different groups… invading forces have understood that sacred groves must not only be destroyed, but that such destruction is a way to demoralise, fragment, and intimidate the local population by stripping it of its spiritual sources and strengths.’ Wangari Maathai
In this story of decolonisation, Appolinaire tells of his work with communities in Benin to restore their sacred forest groves. In doing so, they are collectively strengthening their ancestral identity and sense of place-based belonging. Embedding our lives in the Earth once again can hold us steady against the onslaught of climate chaos, industrial growth and social injustice.
Every couple of seconds a football field’s worth of forest is cleared for economic gain, amounting to about a billion acres over the past 30 years. As we race to address the inextricably linked environmental crises, replanting trees has become a quick fix: for example, the UNEP estimates that forests could provide as much as 50% of the cost-effective climate change mitigation available to us. But what other damage might we be wreaking in this short-sighted reduction of a tree’s role to fit our industrial narrative: cut down merely for material value and replanted simply for “sequestration services”?
In Benin, Appolinaire is sowing a different story, which nurtures the soul instead of settling some sort of balance sheet. His story speaks of the serpent deities draped from branches, of the people who hid from European slavers among roots, of the Vodun ceremonies conducted in clearings, of the medicinal plants growing potent from last year’s leaves.
Benin’s sacred forests aren’t inanimate stores of carbon or sources of wood. These trees are healing, sheltering, inspiring companions in our Earth community, rooting ways of life. Appolinaire’s holistic approach to replanting them goes beyond a quick fix for climate change; he and his people are planting places of rich bio-cultural diversity.
‘We have been walking 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.’ Appolinaire OUSSOU LIO
In restoring forests through community-run tree nurseries, and reviving people’s ancient connection to them, Appolinaire is also ensuring their future protection.
“When you don’t see something as sacred, you don’t protect it in the same way… Benin’s ancestral religion of Vodun is a religion of the Earth. All of our beliefs ultimately go back to the sacred forests where we have lived, prayed and cured ourselves for generations… I want our ancestral way of living in and protecting our forests to be carried into the future… That’s what I am fighting for and I have to continue.” Appolinaire OUSSOU LIO
Appoliniare is leading a shift from the human-centered preoccupations of colonialism and Christianity, to the radical yet ancient Earth-centered perspective that sustained Benin’s indigenous people for millennia. This transformation is at the heart of Earth Jurisprudence: a philosophy and practice that invites us to transition towards a mutually enhancing relationship with the world. On graduating from a three-year Earth Jurisprudence training programme with The Gaia Foundation, Appolinaire joined the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective: a community of practice working across the continent, to revive the indigenous cultures.
THE FOREST IS LIFE
These efforts are growing returns. Having founded his NGO, GRABE-BENIN, in 1996, Appolinaire and his allies convinced Benin’s government to adopt a new Sacred Forest Law. Passed in 2012, it was a legal first for Africa: recognising that sacred forests should be protected, with communities their rightful custodians.
In Avrankou, the grove connected to Appolinaire’s own village has doubled in size thanks to his dialogues with the community. Trees stand tall among a diversity of life once again, from pythons to people performing sacred rituals. The ripple is felt across the wider landscape, too, with farmers adopting agro-ecology approaches that are reviving local rivers, in a world of increasing fresh water-scarcity.
“My hope is to bring life back to expanding forests in Avrankou and across Benin. I want to see people in those groves practising 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. The forest is life.” Appolinaire OUSSOU LIO
Our thanks to Appolinaire OSSOU LIO, the people of Avrankou, and animator Tim Hawkins for bringing their story to life.
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Explore Vodun culture in a chapter of Faith Voices for Ecocide Law, written by Appolinaire (pp. 76-85)…
About Appolinaire and his organisation…
Appolinaire OUSSOU LIO is a founding member of the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective and President of GRABE-BENIN. Appolinaire founded GRABE with a broad focus on reviving the Vodun tradition of the region and connecting young people with Nature, and in 2012 he helped to secure the first Sacred Forests Law in Africa. During his training to become an Earth Jurisprudence practitioner (2014-2017) he began to work directly with custodians of sacred natural sites and to reconnect with his own community, going back to roots. He has since been working with communities to gain legal recognition of sacred forests in Avrankou region, southern Benin, and on reviving traditional seed diversity and medicines.