Exploring the African traditional belief systems in natural resource conservation and management in Ghana.

Author:Diawuo, Francis


The current increasing rate of natural resource loss is a major threat to both human and animal survival. The loss of each species comes with the loss of potential economic benefits, as well as loss of ecosystem balance (Attuquayefio & Fobil, 2005). As such, there has been much increased interest in issues relating to the environment all over the world. Especially, the international community has taken the leading steps in ensuring proper conservation of the natural resources through formal and professional standards.

Meanwhile, before the introduction of modern forms of natural resource conservation and management, indigenous African communities often developed elaborate resource management systems, so had other local communities throughout the world (Ostrom, 1990). Local groups of people managed the land on which they lived and the natural resources they were surrounded by for millennia (Roe, Nelson & Sandbrook, 2009). There existed locally well-informed traditional beliefs that helped in conserving the available natural resources. Attuquayefio and Gyampoh (2010) argue that before the advent of modern natural resource conservation methods, traditional societies operated a complex religious and cultural belief systems via norms, myths, taboos, totems and closed seasons to preserve, conserve and manage certain natural resources. The use of these belief systems was geared toward protecting and promoting communal wellbeing, rather than individual interests.

Despite the potency and the role of traditional African belief systems in natural resource management and conservation, little attention is given to this informal institution (Kankpeyeng, 2000). Although efforts to integrate rural people into the conservation of natural resource programmes and projects have been in place for quite some time (Hulme & Murphree 1999), the integration has been slow. This could be because of the increasing non-adherence to long-held traditional beliefs, due to the advent of western technology, the growing influence of foreign religion and beliefs, lack of modern regulations to enforce the traditional rules, and problems of migration, urbanisation and resettlement (Ntiamoa-Baidu, 1995). Following the above assertion, this article seeks to explore more on how traditional belief systems, especially taboos and totems have contributed to the natural resources conservation and management in Ghana. The article also seeks to offer pragmatic recommendations on the need to integrate modern laws, traditional customs and norms on natural resources conservation and management for the benefit of the generation yet unborn.

Methodology and Approach

Data for this article was obtained through anthropological studies to explore how traditional belief systems contribute in natural resource conservation and management in Sankana and Tongo-Tengzuk in the Upper West and Upper East regions respectively. A case study approach was adopted since it is appropriate for the study of the interaction between social actors and social phenomenon (Yin, 2003). The authors chose this study area because aside their contribution to natural resource conservation and management, very little has been done in terms of research. In addition, data was drawn from primary and secondary sources. These include journals, articles, books, District Assembly documents, internet publications, focus group discussion and personal interviews. The research was conducted from September 2014 to March 2015.


Conservation and management are among the most important elements of sustainable development. It is the management of valuable natural resources such as timber, fish, topsoil, and minerals, forests, wildlife, parkland, and wilderness and watershed areas (Rim-Rukeh, Irerhievwie, Agbozu, 2013). There is no single definition of conservation; however, several definitions have been coined for the concept with some scholars stressing the structural roots of anthropological interests, while others departing from the point of view of economic reasons.

Hence, Usher (2000) defined conservation as the maintenance of genetic species, and ecosystem diversity in the natural abundance in which they occur. Thomas (2003) also thinks conservation is the sacrificing of immediate rewards in return for delayed ones. Meanwhile, Smith and Wishnie (2000) see conservation as actions that prevent or mitigate biodiversity loss and designed for such purpose. Essentially, we define conservation as the maintenance, the protection and the management of the ecosphere; water bodies, fisheries, habitats and biodiversity. Therefore, conservation of the natural resources is thus, the wise use of the earth's resources for the survival of all living things, by all humanity especially and significantly for the benefit of the future generation.

Totems and Taboos

The term 'totem' comes from a North American Indian language, which refers to vegetables or animals that are revered by individuals, particularly group of people as holy sacred. Totems are considered as an emblem consisting of an object such as an animal or plant that serves as the symbol of a family or clan. Taboo on the other hand, is derived from the Polynesian term Tabu, which means 'forbidden' (Adu-Gyamfi, 2011). Taboos are the inhibition or banning resulting from social custom or emotional aversion, which are declared as sacred and forbidden by people. Taboos represent unwritten social rules that regulate human behaviour. Totems and taboos are used by different groups of people for different reasons. Whatever the reason(s) for such constraints or regulations, totems and taboos at least locally, play a major role in the conservation of natural resources, species and ecosystem (Johannes 1978, 1982, 1984 a, b, Chapman 1985, 1987, Gadgil 1987, Gadgil et al. 1993 cited in Johan and Carl, 1997). For this reason, Freud (2004) and Alun (2005) mentioned, people who believe themselves to be of one blood, descendants of a common ancestor, and are bound together by common obligations to each other by a common faith reverence that totem. Totem animals are used to maintain two useful prohibitions; against killing the totemic animal (patricide) and against having sexual relations between members of the same totem or clan (incest).

The traditional belief in the spiritual properties and uses of natural resources has effects on the protection and improvement of the natural environment in many rural communities in Ghana. This means indigenous traditional belief systems have significant roles in natural resource conservation and management.

A totem can be an animal, a plant or any other natural object believed to be ancestrally related to an ethnic group, clan, or family as a tutelary spirit, which they attach deep feelings to. Members of these ethnic groups, clans, or family do not eat, kill or trap such totemic animals; birds, or fish. When a totemic object dies or sold, members of the group it represents would show respect by, for example, mourning and burying it as in the case of a human being (Lumor, 2009). This is because they believe to be ancestrally related to them as a tutelary spirit. Totems have been used basically, to preserve humanity, in that it has in many ways culminated in the conservation of other life forms bequeathed to humankind on whom one is dependent.

Traditional Belief Systems

Since time immemorial, local people have developed a variety of resources management practices and approaches that continue to exist in tropical Africa, Asia, South America and other parts of the world (Appiah-Opoku, 2007). The contributions of indigenous and local belief systems towards a better understanding of natural resources and its sustainable use and management has been documented in the scientific and grey literature in many domains: biodiversity conservation and wildlife management, customary marine resource management, rural development and agroforestry, traditional medicine and health, impact assessment; and natural disaster preparedness and response (IPBES, 2013). It is therefore evident that the role of traditional belief systems in the conservation of a large number of elements of local biodiversity...

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