Benin, a West African nation with a rich cultural tapestry, has a unique relationship with its forests. The forests of Benin hold profound spiritual significance for many of its people and serve as places of hope, guidance, and protection. Over the past fifty years, deforestation has endangered these sacred places, threatening the Beninese spiritual practice of Voodoo, and the people of Benin are fighting back.
Why Are Forests Spiritually Important in Benin?
To the Beninese, forests are full of spirits. Voodoo practitioners consult the forest spirits for rituals and guidance, and they believe that spirits reside in baobab or Iroko trees. According to the Supreme Spiritual Voodoo Chief, Dada Daagbo Hounon Hounan II, a sacred forest "enables the reception of positive energies and positive vibrations to direct and rule the world."
Voodoo priests perform rituals amongst the trees, and sacred rites may include activities such as drinking blessed water or gin, eating cola nuts, and sitting in a sacred spot inside a tree. Only certain priests can communicate with the forest spirits through chants, prayers, or other practices.
What Is Voodoo and Who Practices It?
Voodoo is one of the world's oldest religions, dating back to ancient times in the Kingdom of Dahomey, located in present-day Benin. It is deeply rooted in nature and animism and asserts that all things, from rocks and trees to animals and places, possess spirits. Millions of people across West Africa and in the African diaspora practice Voodoo or include some sacred rites alongside Christian religious traditions.
The religion is often misrepresented in the West as something related to curses and evil. In Benin, Voodoo can be as positive and beneficial as any other spiritual practice. Priests perform Voodoo rituals to help people ward off evil spirits, heal from illnesses, and find success in life. Many ceremonies are only complete with the invocation of local forest spirits.
What Are the Root Causes of Deforestation in Benin?
Benin's forests have been under threat for decades. In the early 1970s, the government of Benin cracked down on Voodoo practitioners by arresting and lynching people and then also chopping down sacred trees. When this period of persecution ended, other factors such as poverty and development continued to drive deforestation.
Between 2005 and 2015, the total area of Benin's forests decreased by more than 20%, and deforestation continues today at a rate of over 2% annually, according to the World Bank. Desperate farmers scrounging for fertile land to grow cotton and cashew nuts end up expanding into protected forests, and development projects such as the expansion of the electrical grid also endanger the natural landscape.
How Are People in Benin Fighting Back?
The government and local communities are pursuing multiple strategies to save the country's forests. The government has imposed bans on tree felling without state approval and invested around $3 billion into the culture and tourism sectors in the hopes of providing alternative income to struggling farmers.
On the local front, some organizations have begun to highlight the benefits of agroforestry. Harvesting honey and snails from existing forests is a way for farmers to maintain existing trees while turning a profit. Some communities have also built walls around a select number of sacred trees to maintain the integrity of their religious spaces.
People recognize that roads and electricity are vital to improving the standard of living, but they refuse to let development come at the cost of destroying the forests. Compromises are happening every day among government bodies and local communities, and Voodoo practitioners are adapting to their changing reality.
As the Beninese people work to strike a balance between development and preservation, they continue to prove how resilient they are. Voodoo isn't just a religion. It's a spiritual practice that connects the Beninese to their ancestors and their culture, and the forests of Benin are a central part of that story.