- Guinea-Bissau is home to countless sacred forests, where cutting down a tree is strictly prohibited by the community.
- Efforts are also underway to develop community forests in communities that don’t recognize the concept of sacred forests, and imbue them with a similar understanding and reverence for the environment.
- Despite these efforts, the country experienced a spate of illegal logging following a coup in 2012, prompting a logging ban to be imposed in 2015.
- With the ban expiring in March 2020 and elections taking place this November, it’s unclear whether or how the government’s stance on the issue will change.
COBIANA, Guinea Bissau – He remembers the first time he heard the voice of Mama Djombo.
Albino Moreira Mendes was sleeping in his bed in Cobiana, a small town in rural northern Guinea-Bissau, when the messages, which he can only describe as coded noises, came to him. They told him how to perform a ceremony in Cobiana’s sacred forest, and that it was his turn take charge of the forest, to become what is known as the baloberu.
“Without the forest, a man like me … I am nothing,” says Mendes, who since that night 10 years ago has been the interlocutor between Mama Djombo, the spirit or iran of the sacred forest in Cobiana, and anyone who wishes to speak to it.
Most societies value something so strongly that the icon or resource becomes intertwined with the very definition of their community. For the residents of Cobiana, the trees — and more specifically their sacred forest — are their roots. Even a hypothetical offer of a million dollars to buy the trees in their sacred forest is met with simultaneous gasps of terror and incredulous laughter. To destroy the forest is to destroy them. “It is our identity,” Mendes says.
There is bright green vegetation on both sides of the winding, single lane of dirt road that leads to the town of Cobiana (the forest and village share the same name). The countryside’s natural colors mirror the colors of its national flag: red earth, neon-green vegetation, and a bright yellow, unforgiving sun. The only respite from the heat is either when the clouds break for rain, or under the canopy of the trees.
Along one side of the road are occasional areas of brush that have been cleared for future planting, but the other side of the road is overgrown and untouched.
On that side of the road lies the sacred forest whose rules are both clear-cut and shrouded in secrecy. What happens in this forest? Coming-of-age rituals for men, prayers for a new marriage, or asking Mama Djombo for various blessings (a baby, a new job). How are these rituals conducted? This information is secret. The more it is shared, the less sacred it becomes. Who can go into the forest? Men who have been initiated. No women, certainly no outsiders.
Mendes insists if you cut down a tree in the sacred forest, you will die.
Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but eventually, Mendes says.
Killing a tree is a crime punishable by death. It’s not a crime punished through the courts, but the iran will decide how and when.
For the residents of Cobiana, the forest does not have a monetary value. “We prefer to die in poverty than to take money from someone to sell a portion of this sacred land,” Mendes says. “We cannot do it. This is something we learned from our ancestors, and even the children who come, they know they cannot sell this land.”
Cobiana also holds historical significance in Guinea-Bissau. During the country’s 11-year independence war against the Portuguese, soldiers fighting for independence would come to Cobiana and ask Mendes’s father, who was the baloberu at the time, to take them into the sacred forest to ask for Mama Djombo’s protection. Mama Djombo was regarded as the protector of the independence fighters. Mendes remembers these days, and he says sometimes swarms of bees would attack Portuguese outposts, thanks to Mama Djombo. “Even the colonialists knew that and didn’t come this way,” he says.
Sacred forests like Cobiana are scattered throughout Guinea-Bissau, particularly in the northwest region and across the 88 islands of the Bijagos archipelago.
No one has surveyed the country to determine exactly how many there are, or the total area they cover, but Miguel de Barros, an activist and sociologist in Guinea-Bissau, says there are hundreds of sacred forests. Some are designated for women only, some are for men. Each one has specific characteristics that depend on the group protecting it, but they all share one hard and fast rule: absolutely no one may cut down a tree in a sacred forest.
De Barros says sacred forests are a powerful force for conservation because they are “a crucial identity element of socialization, knowledge production, and economics … an element that reinforces the identity of the place and also the governing power of spaces and resources.”
Following a coup in 2012, central government authority was weakened and illegal loggers, including some military officials, seized the opportunity to pillage the country’s forests. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency, an NGO, “timber exports from Guinea-Bissau to China, the world’s largest importer of illegal rosewood, surged from 61 tons in 2007 to 98,000 tons in 2014 — an equivalent of 255,000 trees exported in just one year.”
During that time, sacred forests remained untouched.
In 2015, as a reaction to the pillaging, a moratorium on logging was put in place. But the crisis showed how Guinea-Bissau’s government has often failed to protect the country’s forests.
Since gaining independence in 1974, after 11 years of war against the Portuguese colonizers, Guinea Bissau’s central government has struggled for stability.
There have been at least a dozen successful or attempted coup d’états, and amid this, effective environmental protection for the forests of this small but biodiverse country has suffered. Conservationists and park officials say the cultural and spiritual power of sacred forests in some regions of the country has been a unique key to preserving certain areas, and conservation efforts have often been built around them.
It is no accident that Cobiana sits inside the 88,615-hectare (218,972-acre) Cacheu River Mangroves National Park. The Guinea-Bissau authorities have often included sacred spaces when drawing boundaries of national protected areas, because they know the population within these areas already conserve the forests in their own way, as they have for generations.
“That helps us,” says Luis Mendes, a park agent at Cacheu. “Everyone in the community respects that, and this helps us do our work. Each village has its forest reserve, and its tradition. It’s these traditions that allow us to preserve the forest.”
He added that most of the villages within the park have not only a sacred forest, but also a community forest reserve where they harvest wild fruit and practice responsible, regulated slash-and-burn agriculture.
Mendes and other officials at the country’s park services and in the Department of Forests and Water are working against a ticking clock to protect Guinea-Bissau’s forests: the 2015 moratorium that banned logging in the country is set to expire in March 2020, and with national elections on the horizon this November, they are unsure what logging laws will look like in the months to come.
“Even with the moratorium there are still threats to the forest,” says Danilson Coreira, an official at the Department of Forests and Water. “It’s certain those will increase if the moratorium expires.”
After the current government under President José Mário Vaz took power in 2014, it put in place the moratorium on all logging until March 2020. Nelvina Barreto, who served as minister of agriculture and forests until an abrupt government overhaul in late October, said she would have liked to extend the ban beyond the 2020 deadline, for at least another three years so that enhanced community defense mechanisms could be put in place, such as a working hotline that residents can call to alert authorities to logging, as well as better-trained forest rangers.
“There are a lot of concerns about this moratorium, that’s why we have to analyze it very well,” Barreto said. “The decision was taken in 2015 during a crisis and emergency to fight the environmental crimes that were taking place. So now we are not under this pressure, and we need to consider all the economic and social aspects. There are national economic needs, and wood is not only used for exportation. There are a lot of internal uses, and with this moratorium, at the internal level, we have many problems furnishing wood for the internal market.
“It’s this precarious equilibrium we have to find, and we are looking for,” she added. “We need to know what areas we need to continue prohibiting, because there are forests in certain areas that are more affected than others.”
With the central government once again in flux in the country, it’s unclear who will be making and enforcing the logging laws in the near future.
One of Vaz’s leading opponents in the November presidential elections is Domingoes Simões Pereira, known as DSP. Pereira was prime minister when the moratorium was imposed, and says he supports extending the ban if elected.
Barreto was part of the government formed under a coalition including Pereira’s party, and could very well return to helm of the agriculture and forestry ministry if DSP wins the November polls.
There is a marked contrast between Cobiana and other places along the west coast of Guinea-Bissau, where a range of communities with various religious beliefs have strongly preserved their cultural traditions, and other parts of the country.
It is a three-hour drive down a two-lane road from the capital, Bissau, to the Bafata region in the east. There was not much traffic during a recent trip, but more than seven trucks piled high with chopped wood were spotted along the way. Authorities permit the cutting of dead trees to make charcoal for sale, but there are few, if any, mechanisms in place to monitor if fresh wood is being mixed in with dead.
Bafata is majority Muslim, and, in contrast to the west coast, conservationists in the area say there are fewer people who practice animist religions here, so there are very few forests marked as sacred; this eastern region was the hardest hit during the 2012-2015 logging boom.
In Bafata, 48,000 hectares (118,600 acres) are destroyed each year by slash-and-burn agriculture alone, according to Kafo, a national federation focused on subsistence agriculture.
“It’s true that in reality it’s difficult. It’s more difficult in this region,” says Abdou Cassama, general secretary for Sahel 221, a civil society group focusing on conservation. “The conservation in sacred forests, we don’t do that here because it’s Islamicized, so if we compare where it works and where it doesn’t work, here it’s much more difficult.”
To combat deforestation, national groups have focused their efforts on a system of community forests. Kafo says there are 27 such forests in the country, and Sahel 221 says 18 of those are in the Bafata region. The group sees community forests as a way to increase the value communities put on preserving their forests in regions where the religious and cultural rules don’t already dictate that value.
“What we want is that we have at least 10 percent of the country’s forests are community forests for reforestation activities and to make sure they have responsible slash-and-burn methods,” said Mohamed Sarr, a spokesman for Kafo.
Guinea-Bissau’s first community forests were established a little more than a decade ago. Support from NGOs for income-generating activities such as gathering wild fruit for sale has helped communities realise economic value from protecting the forests.
Currently there are 26,050 hectares (64,370 acres) of community forests in Guinea-Bissau, which only represents 1.3 percent of the forest in the country, according to Sarr.
While sacred forests rely on tradition to safeguard the trees, protection of community forests depends on public outreach.
“Through education and from local radio people are started to change their mindset,” Cassama says. “It’s not like before. People are much better at conserving their forests.”
One community forest that has thrived is in Ga-gurdo, where a space of lush green can be reached along a narrow dirt road canopied by trees. A lone white cow is the only other traffic, but along the road are many areas that have been cleared to plant crops.
Each community forest has a 15-member committee, and Tidiane Dembo heads up the committee in Ga-gurdo.
One morning this year when he was out on his daily morning surveillance of the forest, on the lookout for anyone trying to defy the ban on cutting down trees, he spotted footprints. The traces in the mud were fresh enough to follow. He stepped one by one in the trail of someone he did not know, until he finally arrived at the scene he had feared: the remnants of a tree that had been chopped down.
Luckily, the footprints did not end there. Dembo was able to track the suspected perpetrator back to his home, and what he found surprised him. It was the chief of the village who had defied the ban on cutting trees in the community forest.
Dembo called together the rest of the committee to decide on the next course of action.
Eventually, they gathered the community and confronted the chief, who confessed. People caught illegally felling trees usually fined and have their tools confiscated. In this case, the wood confiscated, and the chief promised to never defy the ban again. (Neither he nor anyone else has cut down trees in the forest since, Dembo told Mongabay.)
Although Ga-gurdo’s community forest and the sacred forest in Cobiana protect the trees in very different ways, they both stress that their motivation is to conserve for future generations. Regardless what decision is made by government when the moratorium on logging expires in March 2020, the future of protection for Guinea-Bissau’s richly biodiverse forests will rest on the efforts of communities like these.