Ethiopia and Benin Support Community Protection of Sacred Natural Sites

In Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains, communities have demarcated and secured legal recognition for more than twenty-two sacred natural sites, some of which have been protected from encroachment of farmland and reforested. With support from MELCA-Ethiopia, the area’s elders’ forum has been strengthened, cultural houses re-built and youth re-introduced to aspects of their culture that had been imperilled.

In Benin, indigenous communities and civil society groups successfully lobbied for a national law protecting sacred forests in 2012. The law, which recognises sacred forests as areas of cultural and spiritual potency, as well as biological diversity, empowers custodian communities to continue playing their leading role in managing Benin’s sacred forests.

Bale Mountains, Ethiopia

The Bale Mountains of Ethiopia, the last habitat of the endangered Ethiopian fox

The high alpine Bale Mountains, in Oromia Regional State, south­east Ethiopia, is one example where long-term work with local communities, traditional elders and government authorities is now resulting in the recognition and protection of a growing number of sacred natural sites. Building trust and confidence among local communities, through community dialogues and eco-cultural mapping, is the bedrock for this work – especially when custodians of sacred natural sites were often persecuted as perpetrators of ‘harmful cultural practices’ during the socialist Derg regime in Ethiopia.

Gaia has been working with Ethiopian partner, MELCA and local communities in Bale to revive traditional ecological knowledge and customary law and governance systems and to restore forest biodiversity. The Bale Mountains National Park (BMNP) is the most significant mega diverse area in Ethiopia, covering 2,200 km2 and home to a number of endemic animal species including the Ethiopian wolf and the mountain nyala. There are a number of sacred natural sites within the Bale Mountains area, which are central in their spiritual relationship the custodian communities have with Nature, their ancestral lands.

Mersha Yilma, who works with both Gaia and MELCA Ethiopia, was critical in the work to secure sacred natural sites in the Bale region. He is a graduate of the first Earth Jurisprudence training in Africa.

Gedeb Gedela is a sacred site, for example, which people can visit for spiritual solace and rituals, to find solutions for problems such as infertility or the loss of harvest, or when they have family or neighbourhood disputes. Traditionally, the customary law of sacred sites does not allow economic activities to take place, except hanging beehives. Through this work, the support of Islam and Christian religious leaders has been achieved, such as teaching the laities and school children of the need for reverence and protection of sacred natural sites, using the words of the Bible and the Koran. This has been an encouraging and supportive to the process. Also, the willingness of the Culture and Tourism Office to support all the steps, from identification to legal recognition of the sacred sites, has been indispensable.

Many sacred natural sites in Ethiopia, such as Gedeb Gedela, are under pressure for conversion into agricultural lands – often involving the draining of wetlands. Due to the growing vulnerability of sacred sites some communities have decided to demarcate and fence their sacred sites to stop pressures from farmland expansion and grazing. Gaia has worked with MELCA to assist the communities to physically demarcate and recognise over 20 sites. Local authorities have recognised these areas as no-go for agricultural or any extractive or infrastructure development.

Gaia commissioned this case study by Dr Mellese Damtie, an Ethiopian Earth Jurisprudence lawyer, biologist and Assistant Law Professor of the Ethiopian Civil Service College’s Department of Law, Addis Ababa, to explore Ethiopia’s legislative tools for protecting sacred natural sites and recognising no-go areas. He worked closely with Gaia’s partner MELCA in compiling the study.

Dr Mellese reports that in Ethiopia there is no standalone policy or legal framework that recognises sacred natural sites, though references to their significance and need for protection can be found scattered in federal and district policies and laws. As in many countries, the safeguarding of sacred forests, hills or waterfalls demands the careful interpretation of existing legal instruments, and/or finding indirect ways of applying the laws, for instance, by invoking cultural rights.

The Ethiopian constitution, for example, states that: “Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has the right to speak, to write and to develop its own language; to express, to develop and to promote its culture; and to preserve its history”. The Federal Forest Development, Conservation and Utilization Proclamation states that “Protected natural forests and forest lands shall be demarcated and conserved for the purpose of environmental protection and conservation of history, culture and biodiversity as well as for the purpose of field education” (Article 11 (1)). Whereas, at the regional level, legal instruments for communal forest custodianship can be equally relevant and often underline on the importance of traditional knowledge.

Lower Ouémé River Basin, Benin

The Hli community in Benin gather for an induction into community dialogues with Gaia and local partner GRABE-Benin, August 2017

The sacred forests of Benin’s lower Ouémé River basin consist of scattered patches of forest and tree groves. Under growing demographic pressures and expanding urban and agricultural frontiers, many of these sacred forests are disappearing; others maintain a fragile status as sites for religious (Voodoo) practices and the collection of plant material for traditional medicine.

Gaia’s local partner, GRABE (Groupe de Recherche et d’Action pour le Bien-Etre au Benin) is one of Benin’s most active civil society organisations in regenerating and protecting Benin’s sacred forests, which are critical for biodiversity, culture and governance systems of local communities – putting conservation back in the hands of local communities and kingdoms along the Ouémé River.

GRABE work in Dangbo, Bonou, Akpro-Missérét, Aguégués, Adjohoun, Sèmè-Kpodji and Porto-Novo municipalities, on: 1) community protection of sacred forests; 2) environmental education programmes for youth; 3) strengthening community food sovereignty. The organisation also played a key role in securing Benin’s 2012 Forest Law (N°0121/MEHU/MDGLAAT/DC/SGM/DGFRN/SA). This law provides a framework for protecting sacred forests and their biodiversity, and local communities can be recognised legally as custodians and set the conditions for sustainable management.

GRABE is currently Secretariat for a new national association of territories and areas conserved by indigenous peoples and local communities (national focal point for the ICCA-Consortium).



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