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Cosmological Basis of the African Environmental Ethic


The last two and a half decades have experienced a rapid increase in the exploitation of renewable natural resources and for that matter 1biodiversity conservation has become a matter of great public concern, the world over. Human activities such as unsustainable forest products exploitation, unsustainable agricultural practices, indiscriminate bush burning, unorthodox fishing practices etc. have led to declining biodiversity in agricultural communities, environmental degradation and widespread poverty. Ironically, for people in traditional Africa, including Ghana, securing adequate day to day requirements of life is overwhelmingly dependent on the wealth of biodiversity around them since it supports the major sectors of the economy including agriculture, forestry, tourism, energy (hydroelectric, charcoal, firewood) and fisheries. For rural people, wild plants and animals provide food, medicine, building materials and income; streams, canals and rivers provide transportation, water and fish.

It is therefore not surprising that many traditional societies in Africa have built-in systems aimed at protecting the environment and conserving biodiversity in their localities. The mechanisms for this traditional resource management vary from one community to the other but religion, taboos, norms, culture, and local rules and regulations generally govern them. For instance, in certain communities in Ghana the burial place of past elders, chiefs and kings is preserved because of respect for the dead and the belief that the ancestral spirits live in the forest. Entry into such forest is strictly prohibited and is allowed to only certain categories of people within the community at specific times and for specific purposes. In many cases such relic forests are the only natural forests remaining in the area.

In other cases, patches of forests were protected because they supported wild plant and animal species considered to be sacred, totem or tabooed. Tabooed species/totem animals and plants (objects that are regarded as symbols by a particular group of people who treat them with great respect) have spiritual or cultural values and association and are accorded special protection. The significance of such species and the respect or fear for them are always based, apparently, on beliefs of common ancestry and superstitions associated with some kind of protective or evil deeds involving species in the past. For example the leopard Panthera pardus and the raffia palm Raffia hookeri are the symbols of the "Bretuo" and the "Oyoko" clans of the Akans of Ghana respectively. Traditionally such species and their habitats are strictly protected and in some cases eating, killing or even touching of the species is forbidden.

A number of sacred forests also originate from historical events linked with the culture of a community. An example of such a forest is the Asantemanso sacred grove, which is believed to contain the cave from which all the seven clans of the Asante tribe of Ghana originated (Ntiamoa-Baidu et al 1992).

It is the aim of this website therefore, to highlight some of the African traditional symbolism, beliefs, and practices, which have had positive impact on the conservation of biodiversity in their environment.


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