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How sacred groves protect deities, culture and biodiversity

In Asia and Africa, researchers examine the biodiversity benefits inherent to sacred sites

Statues in the Osun Osogbo Sacred Grove in Nigeria. jbdodane, Flickr
7 April 2022
Sandra Cordon
7 April 2022
Sandra Cordon

Sacred groves have existed in most human cultures around the world since as far back as we can trace. But in addition to local deities and significant cultural practices, important biodiversity is also protected by these places, says new research from Nigeria, where one such area has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Often, entire communities take on a watchdog role to guard against desecration and unauthorized access – from community members and outsiders both – to their sacred groves, says the paper, which is currently under review. 

“Our research, building on all of the research conducted previously, shows that the aggregate contributions of sacred groves to biodiversity conservation, ecosystem resilience and protection against intense land-use pressures are widely recognized,” says the paper’s lead author Samuel Adeyanju, a PhD student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Adeyanju grew up only a two-hour drive from the 75-hectare Osun Osogbo Sacred Grove, a remnant of old-growth forest regarded as the home of fertility goddess Osun and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“The rich biodiversity found in sacred groves sometimes exceeds that of nearby protected areas and state-managed forest reserves,” he says.

Meanwhile, separate research in Kapuas Hulu in Indonesia has shown similar findings concerning the importance of informal institutions in protecting biodiversity within a wider range of sacred sites. Researchers led by Linda Yuliani, a Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) scientist, interviewed members of Indonesia’s Dayak communities to learn about their practices that inherently protect endangered orangutan populations and their habitats. These include, for example, traditional beliefs, taboos against harming orangutans, and knowledge about how to protect the landscape’s complex forest and agroforestry systems.

In two of the three Nigerian sacred groves included in Adeyanju’s study, hunting, fishing and tree-cutting are not allowed. Violators face arrest by grove guards or might be required to make special sacrifices to appease gods – threats that aid protection of the sacred site and consequently conserve its biodiversity.

In this way, these sacred groves encourage ecosystem resilience and protection against intense land use pressures to an even greater degree than do nearby protected areas and state-managed forest reserves, says the research. If there are additional state-enforced rules and regulations applicable in sacred groves, these strengthen community-led efforts even further by adding a layer of formal management.

Harvesting forest goods in Kapuas Hulu, in Indonesia. Icaro Cooke Vieira, CIFOR
Harvesting forest goods in Kapuas Hulu, in Indonesia. Icaro Cooke Vieira, CIFOR

Incentives for informal protection also include the economic benefits that come with certain sacred sites that are popular with tourists and pilgrims, whose visits can help create jobs and income for guides, snack vendors and even farmers, says Adeyanju. 

“We also found that economic incentives from tourism, employment opportunities and income-generating activities contribute to successful biodiversity conservation in these sacred groves.”

Osun Osogbo contains over 400 plant species and habitat for wildlife species with a high risk of extinction, including the endangered white-throated monkey, the vulnerable putty-nosed monkey and the red-capped mangabey, another primate designated as vulnerable. Founded some 400 years ago, the forest sanctuary also contains 40 shrines, two ancient palaces, and many sculptures and artworks in honor of Osun and other deities, according to UNESCO

“As long as the groves continue to be central in shaping the identities of the Yoruba people (of West Africa), the site of traditional festivals and occult meetings, and symbols of spiritual powers, they, and the biodiversity therein, will be preserved,” says Adeyanju, who is also a member of the Collaborating to Operationalise Landscape Approaches for Nature, Development and Sustainability (COLANDS) initiative. 

Yuliani’s research in Indonesia, similarly, shows that higher orangutan density was found in sacred locations that had relevant cultural attributes in addition to good habitat conditions, as compared with locations that had just one of those factors. Yuliani says that the sacred groves and local agroforestry practices, which include fruit gardens, have created corridors connecting patches of forests for the endangered primates to roam.

In many parts of the world, significant challenges to preserving sacred areas include rural–urban migration by elders, who carry traditional knowledge. As well, disagreements have flared over who decides how to spend tourist revenues from Nigeria’s sacred groves, with communities seeking shared management and decision-making with government agencies. 

Greater protection for biodiversity might require greater support for community-based organizations working to uphold and preserve traditional ecological knowledge, manifested in cultural values and festivals that have proved effective in protecting the remaining biodiversity in sacred groves, says Adeyanju’s paper. That could involve more sharing of power, authority and responsibilities between formal and informal institutions, good communication and mutual understanding. 

The trade-off – greater cooperation for greater conservation – seems reasonable, Adeyanju suggests. “The long-term resilience of sacred groves depends in equal measure on governance reforms and landscape-level approaches.” 


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