African conservation ethics

Environmental notes logoMany thanks to Zambia Environmental Management Agency (ZEMA) for the well coordinated Environmental Awards 2016 which brought together Civil Society Organisations, media houses, individuals and other institutions working for environment all across Zambia. A big congratulations to the Chipembele Conservation Club of Choma Secondary school and the Chongololo Conservation Club of Flamingo School for being awarded outstanding Environmental Conservation Clubs. To all those who received the awards well done, keep up the good work, Warthog salutes you. This week we look at conservation ethics in Africa.
Suffice to say, the indigenous belief systems of Africa have been altered, and many traditions have been lost or replaced by the secular and religious traditions of immigrants and colonisers. Indigenous African religious practises were based on oral traditions (passage of information through word of mouth without writing) and on knowledge and customs which are passed on during a wide variety of ceremonies and rituals during rites of passage and a range of community events. Some of the content of these ceremonies and rituals were secret, which combined with an oral tradition made them especially vulnerable to change over time.
Many of the sacred environments which are believed to be the abodes of nature spirits or which are sacred places of learning about traditional healing, divination and rites to connect with the ancestors have been polluted or destroyed by mining, deforestation, dams and commercial cash crops. As a result of all these influences and impacts, indigenous African belief systems and knowledge are being forgotten. People are giving up many of their traditional ways in favour of western education, capitalist enterprise, new religious practices and prioritizing the individual over their community.
Environmental conservation is not a recent phenomenon in indigenous African communities. Past generations knew about the sustainable use of natural resources. Because religion permeates virtually all aspects of African life, practises to protect special areas, species and to ensure sustainable use of land and water found expression in religious rituals and practises. This is in keeping with the belief that all things were created by the Supreme Being for a harmonious continuity, and as such there must be a relationship of mutual obligations between all created things.
The traditional healers of the past collected barks or roots in a way that did not damage the plants, or if the entire plant was needed, they would not harvest all the plants, but leave some for the future. Sadly traditions have been eroded and the demand for resources has increased. Middlemen, who are not trained in the conservation methods of the past or who are more concerned about short term profits, often disregard the conservation taboos and sustainable harvesting practises of the past.
It is rather ironic that the global environmental crisis, which is particularly harshly expressed in parts of Africa, is resulting in a growing interest in traditional African knowledge systems and of how communities lived in a sustainable relationship with their environment.
Many religions focus on the preservation of human wellbeing and the promotion of whatever enhances life on Earth. At a practical level, a healthy natural environment is acknowledged as essential for a healthy and harmonious life. The connection is also deeply spiritual. In traditional African societies nature was regarded as a gift by a supreme Creator God for the benefit of humanity who believed that mankind was created at the centre of the universe.
A gift, nature is gift. Like all other gifts, it is not to be abused. A host of nature spirits associated with specific animal and tree species and sacred forests, rivers, lakes, and mountains reminded local communities of their need to respect the environment and to use it sustainably. Through responsible behaviour people, were required to co-exist peacefully with other people, other living creatures and natural objects and by so doing to ensure a harmonious and sacred web of life. Many rituals, taboos and customs function to remind communities of the need for respect.
Water as a source of life and spirituality is a core African value. Traditionally water was recognised as both an essential life force and a source of strong spiritual power. Water spirits were believed to live in and protect water sources as well as being the guardians of fertility, morality, and life itself. They can, however, be chased away by disrespectful actions or by social disharmony. Disrespect shown to them was believed to result in drowning, droughts and floods, and if it was so severe that they left, this could result in the degradation of the water bodies or their drying up.
Africa’s ecology has had eons to adapt to the impacts of mankind activity. However, the more recent impacts resulting from demand for resources from the industrialisation of the world, materialistic capitalism, population density and now Climate Change are devastating. Across Africa, sacred areas long protected by traditional customs which restricted use and, or access have enjoyed protection and are now recognised as ecologically important areas in addition to being culturally significant. Some habitats are venerated because they house an animal considered sacred, or a clan totem. One example is the belief in a common ancestry with the leopard, the symbol of the Akan people. The forest in which these leopards are found is sacred and killing them is forbidden. While the original intention may not have been purely for conservation, the benefits for conservation are clear.
Today, some cultures in Zambia and many other African countries view human life as a member of a community and spiritually they do not draw clear distinctions between the living and the dead. The dead in the form of ancestors remain part of their community and can intercede on behalf of the living to ensure the wellbeing of their family members and clan. Land ownership is a core value amongst Africans and is also linked to the extended family’s link with their ancestors. This is also the thinking of Wart hog that our almighty God gave the land to each community through their ancestors and they in turn have the responsibility to look after it for future generations.
A re-visitation of the principles of traditional African religious practices would provide modern conservation programs in Africa and globally with an insight into the activities of communities that managed to live alongside the rivers and forests and use them sustainably. Contemporary Africa would do well to borrow a leaf from traditional African spiritual beliefs to further environmental conservation for the wellbeing of humanity and out of respect for God’s gift of creation.

Wildlife & Environmental Conservation Society of Zambia
P.O. Box 30255, Lusaka, Zambia.
Telefax: 260-211-251630, Cell: 0977-780770
E-mail: wecsz@coppernet.zm