Liberian Study: Sacred Forests Valued Above Increased Crops

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Written by Dana Sanchez

U.K. scientists used GPS, quantitative surveys, and recorded oral history in an 18-month study in Liberia that examined traditional agricultural practices of the Loma people, who do not use artificial fertilizers or industrial farming techniques.

The result? Researchers found that ancestral lands and sacred forests were valued more by the Loma than the short-term economic gain of increasing food production, according to a Lancaster University, U.K. report in Phys.org.

Loma farmers produce their food by planting crops in highly fertile, “man-made” soil in local areas, built up over generations by everyday domestic life, the report said. The soil includes deposits of charred and fresh organic matter such as manure, ash, bones, ceramics and charcoal.

Known as “anthropogenic dark earth,” this man-made soil is twice as energy efficient as slash-and-burn production or hunting and gathering, according to Phys.org.

Expanding the growing area for crops is limited by forests that the Loma people consider sacred, according to the research.

These forests grow around the towns and cover areas of fertile, man-made soil where past towns once existed. Customary laws prohibit these forests from being cleared for farming, because some trees are believed to have medicinal or mystical power, and also because of the presence of graves.

“From a modern Western perspective, not expanding the coverage of this highly fertile soil appears to be sub-optimal,” said Dr. James Fraser, who led the fieldwork. “But communities manage the land in a way that is informed by their relationship to past generations, sustaining their institutions and way of life over many generations, which are more important to them than material gain.”

Forests that hold a sacred value for local people suffer much less deforestation than those forests lacking this cultural value, according to John Healey, a professor of forest sciences at Bangor University in Wales, U.K. While the sacred forests do receive greater protection from local communities they are still under threat, he said in a separate report in Phys.org.

Healey did recent research on the remote Gamo Highlands of Southwest Ethiopia — a important center of global biodiversity. The natural forests there have been reduced by more than a 33 percent since 1995 due to their conversion to farmland, he said.

“As sacred forests are found in many cultures around the world, there is some hope that, in addition to their cultural significance, the persistence of these values can make an important contribution to conservation of biodiversity,” Healy said, according to Phys.org.