The iroko (Milicia excelsa) is one of West Africa’s most iconic trees. It is a sacred tree in many of the areas where it occurs. In Benin, people call Him “the king of the forest” and hence address Him with respect.
For the past five years, our team has studied plant use in West Africa and the Caribbean. I, particularly, have taken over the task of investigating the ethnobotany of traditional religions. For my work, I have interviewed market vendors of ritual plants and followers of Voodoo in Benin and Bwiti in Gabon about the plants they use in their religious practices. I have also spent time collecting plants with traditional healers who, in turn, consult supernatural entities (such as spirits and ancestors) in order to diagnose their patients. By working with these wonderful people we have learnt that many of the ritual plants used in Benin and Gabon are becoming increasingly rare. We have also learnt that there are many taboos to restrict the use of ritual plants, and that there is a link between their scarcity and the existence of taboos.
Religious traditions and the adaptive management of plant resources
After checking the IUCN red list of endangered species, we found that many of the taboo plant species in Benin and Gabon were also in danger of extinction. These species are widely grown in the home gardens of traditional healers, in sacred shrines, or simply, their growth is promoted in the wild. Taboo plants that are not officially listed in IUCN’s red list, but whose rarity was reported both in Gabon and Benin, include the red anzem (Copaifera religiosa), the kevazingo (Guibourtia tessmannii), the kapok (Ceiba pentandra) and the njangsa (Ricinodendron heudelotii). While the first two are important timber species with a distribution range limited to West Central Africa, the njangsa and the kapok are most likely protected because of the ecosystem services they offer. The njangsa has the highest potential for carbon sequestration and fallow improvement of cash crop tree plantations. The kapok is the keystone of complex ecological communities including birds, bats, insects, ferns, orchids, bromeliads, and airplants.
Taboos are a form of adaptive management where restrictions are related to resource scarcity and the protection of ritual plant species.
When asked, our informants would explain that taboos are practices that permitted their ancestors to exist in equilibrium with their entourage, and as such, should be kept in order to assure the survival of present generations. Many believe that in disobeying these restrictions, sinners break the balance that their spirits help to maintain. As a consequence, they will face misfortune, ill health and, eventually, death. Our results suggest that taboos are a form of adaptive management where restrictions are related to resource scarcity and the protection of ritual plant species.
In Benin, for example, the number of endangered, taboo, and protected plant species is much larger than in the more forested and less densely populated Gabon. One of the main theories on taboos sustain that these are implemented by societies with high availability and choice of resources. In our study, we have learnt that this is not always the case.
A double-edged sword
But the contribution of religious traditions to nature conservation is not only limited to social mechanisms such as taboos. For Benin alone, there is a substantial body of evidence linking traditional religious practices to the conservation of animal species, forest and aquatic ecosystems, and even the varietal diversity of food crops. From a broader perspective, however, the belief in the supernatural powers of ritual plants can be the double-edged sword of their conservation. Taboos do not seem to apply to commercial harvesters and timber loggers, and the profitability of their trade exacerbates their vulnerability to unsustainable harvesting. Although taboo plant species are often protected, their products are still sold and purchased on the Beninese and Gabonese medicinal plant markets. Nonetheless, by demonstrating how the study of ritual plant use can yield baseline data on possibly endangered species, we have come a step closer in the mainstreaming of religious practices as tools for the conservation of nature.