In both Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), village communities are witnessing the disappearance of their sacred forests. As a place for ancestral rites and sacrificial practices, sacred forests are under increasing pressure, jeopardising their biodiversity and ecological role. To reverse the trend, traditional chiefs, civil society and governments are stepping up initiatives.
In Bafoussam, the capital of the western region of Cameroon, “Ngouh Ngouong”, a sacred forest located in the Ndiangdam district, is at the heart of an affair between the high chief and three notables from the royal court. Chief Njitack Ngompe Péle has imposed heavy sanctions on these three notables for their role in the invasion of this sacred forest. The latter concluded the sale of a plot of land between the two sites, considered as male and female of ‘Ngouh Ngouong’. However, this forest has already lost more than half of its area in just five years.
Human pressure is now being exerted on all these sacred forests, which are found scattered throughout the various villages of the West Cameroon region. In this area, which is essentially savannah, and where plantations stretch as far as the eye can see, traditional chiefs, considered locally as the first guardians of the sacred forests, deplore a litany of threats.
“Nowadays in Batié, the sacred forests face several threats. People come there to look for wood and others hunt. And some hunters set fire to encourage rodents, especially rats, to leave their burrows. In addition to this destructive practice, there is the invasion of these forests by agricultural activity. Some forest dwellers are extending their plantations into the forest,” explains Tchouankam Theodore Dada, the head chief of the Batié village.
The sacred forests of Batoufam, a town about 50 km north-east of Batié, are no less affected. “The deforestation we are experiencing here is mainly due to young people who leave the cities to settle in the village. They don’t respect the customs and even less the sacred forests. They enter the forest, cut wood or practice agriculture,” explains Nayang Toukam Inocent, Batoufam head chief.
Finger-pointing by traditional leaders in the DRC
The forest galleries of Mbankana have been overexploited to the point of extinction over the past two decades. In this peri-urban area located about 150 km from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the expansion of the city, the search for new land to exploit, poverty, the lack of opportunities and the poor management of the land by traditional chiefs are all being questioned.
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For José Mubake, an inhabitant of Mbankana, traditional chiefs are primarily responsible for the disappearance of the sacred forests. “Our traditional chiefs are selfish in their position as guardians of the land. Out of greed and a thirst for money, they have sold land occupied by sacred forests to private individuals, forgetting about tradition,” laments José Mubake.
The trivialisation of sacred forests
The International Foundation for Development, Entrepreneurship and Environmental Protection (FIDEPE) is one of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) active in the fight to preserve sacred forests. In Bafoussam, where she is based, she notes that the sacred forests have almost lost their sacred character among current generations. “Foreign religions, especially Christianity, consider our sacrificial rituals to be satanic practices. This causes many of our brothers to reject their tradition and the places where it is practiced. This is why nowadays you will see anyone entering the sacred forests, not hesitating to plunder them on the way,” laments Clovis Koagne, the president of FIDEPE.
The rules and customary codes that protect the sacred forests are not always respected by local people. “Before entering the forest, you have to ask the customary chiefs for permission. And if you ignore their authority, something bad can happen to you in the forest. You can even get lost,” explains Willy Fimpele, a notable from Mbankana in the DRC.
A heritage at the heart of climatic and biological issues
There are two main types of sacred forest. Neighbourhood sacred forests or sacred forests where people worship and chieftaincy sacred forests. The sacred forests of the neighbourhoods are islands of natural forest found in almost all the neighbourhoods of each village. For the population, these forests are home to the gods who protect or come to the aid of people in difficulty. The sacred forests of the chieftaincy are islands of natural forest located around the chieftaincy of each village. They are the place of initiation rites of the different clans of the village. The great dignitaries of the village or notables organised in secret societies hold their meetings there.
The sacred forests are the last bastions of forestry in the regions explored in Cameroon and the DRC and are part of the indigenous and community heritage areas (APAC). They are conserved by local communities on the basis of their habits and customs. They are not taken into account by the 1994 law on forests in Cameroon. This legal vacuum is in addition to the many threats posed by these areas, which add up to millions of hectares, according to Fidepe. It is therefore a considerable forest area in the fight against global warming, through the absorption of greenhouse gases.
Moreover, these forests are crucial for achieving the objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Post 2020 Agenda. Published on 12 July 2021 by the secretariat of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), this agenda includes 21 targets for 2030 which call, among other things, for at least 30% of the world’s land and sea areas to be conserved. “Sacred forests are full of diverse plant and animal species whose disappearance would be dramatic for biodiversity and even for traditional medicine. And even if we plant acacias or eucalyptus, we will not succeed in bringing back these primitive trees, the reservoir of traditional knowledge, which our ancestors have bequeathed to us,” says Salah Mushiete, chief of the Impini village in the Kwilu province in southern DRC.
The Cobalam project
To reverse the disappearance of Cameroon’s sacred forests, the government and its partners, including UN Environment, launched the project “Removing Obstacles to Biodiversity Conservation, Land Restoration and Sustainable Forest Management through Community-Based Landscape Management (Cobalam)” in 2021.
Funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and implemented by the NGO Rainforest Alliance, Cobalam aims to conserve biodiversity in the western highlands and southern region of Cameroon through a sustainable landscape management approach, in which High Conservation Value Forests (HCVF) are protected.
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Component 1 of the Cobalam project focuses on improving the enabling environment so that HCVFs, including sacred forests, are better protected. “One of the things we heard from the traditional leaders we work with was the need to demarcate sacred forests. And we now believe that the implementation of participatory mapping is crucial for the advancement of the preservation of these areas,” explains Jacques Waouo, Team Manager at the Rainforest Alliance.
Boris Ngounou and Myriam Iragi, with support from the Rainforest Journalism Fund and the Pulitzer Center
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