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Spirituality and Biodiversity

From conservation refugees to natural allies

New national parks often mean that people, who have lived on the lands for generations are forced to leave. Authorities use economic incentives to gain their support but understanding their culture may be more important.

The awesome snow-capped peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains in east Africa house unique plants and animals that exist nowhere else on earth. The mountains are also the traditional home of the Bakonzo and Baamba people. Or rather, they were.

In 1991, the establishment of the Rwenzori Mountains National Park led to their expulsion from the area. It is a story of conservation trumping cultural heritage and not a new one at that. The same has happened to many peoples around the world as more protected areas are established to preserve unique and precious ecosystems. Often those conservation refugees are not allowed to return.

At first glance, the establishment of such national parks to preserve wildlife and ecosystems seems like an unequivocally positive thing. But the unique landscapes conservationists are trying to protect house not only fascinating flora and fauna but people too. Many of those peoples had lived on the lands for centuries and have a strong spiritual connection to their home, which in many cases forms part of their identity.

As a result, people who have been expelled from protected areas and who usually end up living just outside them, often become hostile to the conservation efforts. But their support and that of other surrounding communities is particularly important for the success of such projects.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI), an organization in Uganda, where the Rwenzori national park is located, wants to ease the tensions between preserving the environment and cultural heritage as well as gaining support from local populations. The NGO is brokering agreements between the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the local people for access to the Rwenzori national park.

Money versus faith

Ankole cows in Uganda

Local peoples have traditionally let their cattle graze on land that is now a national park.

"The question of 'access' is not new," says Mark Infield, referring to the right of conservation refugees to visit their ancestral homelands. Infield was director of cultural values and conservation at FFI until 2014 and worked on the project in Rwenzori national park. Conservationists have traditionally thought of access in terms of economics and not culture, he told DW.

"Access has been understood primarily in terms of natural resources needed for economic livelihood support and has included a range of plant materials for uses such as making traditional baskets, stretchers, medicines etc.," Infield says.

By providing expelled peoples with access elsewhere to food, water or building supplies they would have found on their traditional lands or economic opportunities such as jobs in tourism, conservationists thought they would gain support for the conservation efforts and solve any disputes. But as it turned out, local opposition to conservation projects often had far less to do with money than it did with spirituality.

For example, the mountains are sacred to the Bakonzo and the Baamba peoples. Kitathamba, their God of creation, lives on top of the mountains amongst the snow and glaciers, not unlike the ancient Greek gods, who lived on Mount Olympus. Kitathamba also forms a cornerstone of the entire social hierarchy of the Bakonzo and Baamba and the traditional beliefs bring order to their societies. So it is easy to understand that they would want to worship and make sacrifices to Kitathamba at certain sacred sites in the mountains.

"Understanding how these people relate to nature is very key to making sure that we're going to get their support and their interest in the management of these protected areas," Arthur Mugisha, FFI Uganda country director told DW. "Many of the people who live in these hotspots of biodiversity still have close links with their natural world. That is why FFI is taking an interest in the idea of cultural values of these people."

A cultural approach

The Rwenzori Mountains

The Rwenzori Mountains are a biodiversity hotspot with many endemic species found nowhere else on earth.

In Rwenzori Mountains National Park, FFI started by trying to learn more about the local beliefs and how they relate to the land.

"FFI has been looking at and discussing cultural resources, which include sites of importance for a range of cultural reasons such as sites of worship, ritual and ceremony, ancestral graves, sites of historical and mythical importance, sites for initiation, dancing, etc.," says Infield.

FFI also tried to mediate between the locals and the park administration. Locals want to visit sacred sites and hold ceremonies there as well as use the parklands in other ways. The park administration, on the other hand, is concerned about minimizing the human impact on the ecosystem.
Infield says the work is challenging at times.

"There needs to be more progress within the Uganda Wildlife Authority on acceptance of the general concept of access to culturally important sites and understanding why this is important for relations with communities as well as why it is important for the Uganda Wildlife Authority," he says.

Currently, the communities around the park can access medicinal plants, cultural and spiritual sites, hot springs as well as traditional foot paths, says Edison Nuwamanya, country programme manager for FFI in Uganda. To visit the sacred sites, locals need to sign a memorandum of understanding. Then they receive a permit to visit a specific site, but can stay in the park for one day only.

Natural allies

Although the plethora of rules and regulations make it sound like a tug of war between the park authorities and the people, the two sides also often share a common interest, even if their motives differ.

A case in point are the eastern chimpanzees that live in Rwenzori Mountains National Park. The subspecies of the common chimpanzee is endangered and strictly protected. But they have nothing to fear from the Bathangyi, a Bakonzo clan that lives in the area. To them, the apes are their totems and according to their traditional beliefs, totems may not be killed or harmed in any way.

"Totems were viewed as part of the kindred, and it was believed that these totems shared blood with the ancestors," one local told FFI researchers in an interview. "To hurt a totem was tantamount to hurting the community's ancestors."

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