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  • African Sacred Groves: Ecological Dynamics and Social Change
  • Gregory H. Maddox
Michael J. Sheridan and Celia Nyamweru, eds. African Sacred Groves: Ecological Dynamics and Social Change. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008. Oxford: James Currey; Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2008. Ecological Dynamics and Social Change series. x + 230 pp. Photographs. Maps. Figures. Notes. Tables. References. Index. $59.95. Cloth. $26.95. Paper.

African Sacred Groves: Ecological Dynamics and Social Change brings together a disparate group of contributors to discuss the relationship between sacred groves—areas of natural environment set aside by local communities for ritual use and protected by powerful spiritual forces—and efforts to promote conservation. Michael J. Sheridan and Celia Nyamweru have brought together social scientists and natural scientists to explore the ways that sacred groves have been appropriated by supporters of conservation—as both symbols of local communities’ ability to protect the environment from overexploitation and as tools to encourage that protection. The volume presents cases from across the continent, ranging from royal forests in Uganda, to sites on coastal Kenya, to cemeteries in Morocco, to single trees in Senegal, to fenced-in shrines in urban Ghana.

In his overview essay Sheridan explores why the concept of sacred grove has become a part of the language of conservation—and the pitfalls that sometimes ensue. In opposition to a conservationist ethic focused on the idea of preserving nature untouched by human hands, he argues that the supposedly untouched sacred groves of Africa have been created by human agency and are constantly modified by humans. He hints (but does not state plainly) that the crux of the issue is that members of communities see sacred groves as sites of power and healing necessary for the maintenance of society, often in many different ways. In addition to ritual purposes, practices around such sites often allow the use of resources found in the grove in a variety of ways: herding, hunting, the gathering of firewood and building supplies, the collection of medicinal herbs, or even farming. In extreme cases the preservation of a sacred grove serves as an expression of political power (Abwoli Y. Banana et al., and Tsehai Berhane-Selassie), rather like the concept of aristocratic hunting grounds in Europe. Several studies demonstrate that different actors can compete for control over sacred graves. In many cases these sites result from human agency through planting and nurturing of trees, as Nyamweru et al. demonstrate for the Kaya forests of coastal Kenya, echoing the work on Guinea of James Fairhead and Melissa Leach (Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosaic [Cambridge University Press, 1996]). In short, African societies protected areas with social and political as well as religious aims in mind.

Conservationists (a term covering a myriad of state and commercial interests, NGOs, and activists) come to sacred groves from a different perspective. Some see such areas as examples of primordial environments that [End Page 207] should be protected for all human activity; others see them as evidence of a functional conservation ethic embedded in indigenous knowledge systems. However, in seeking to help communities preserve sacred groves they hijack the idea into the service of their definition of conservation, measured in terms of biodiversity and proportion of forest cover remaining (as Aiah Lebbie and Raymond P. Guries demonstrate in their essay on Sierra Leone). However, external support for conservation through the recognition of ritual sites can empower local communities (or at least some elements within local communities) to exert control over local resources. Liz Alden Wily’s essay situates the legal status of community-controlled resources within trends over the last decade supporting increased local control over resources in Africa. Yet such an alliance of external and local actors can easily be undermined by other factors.

Beliefs around sacred groves often focus on the maintenance of social harmony and well-being. As conditions change—such as land shortages or an increase in timber prices—the guardians of sacred groves often prove capable of changing the rules of access. Ute Siebert discusses a case from Benin, where elders eventually allowed younger men to clear part of the forest rings around villages for agriculture because of the need for...


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