Header Background Image Sm.png
Your Public Radio Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Meet the people safeguarding the sacred forests and lagoons of West Africa

Diakine Sambou, queen of the sacred forest of Kaoupoto, on Feb. 23, 2021, in Mlomp, Senegal.
Ricci Shryock
Diakine Sambou, queen of the sacred forest of Kaoupoto, on Feb. 23, 2021, in Mlomp, Senegal.

When a logging company tried to force its way into a traditional forest in Daniel Karworo's hometown in rural Liberia, the machine got stuck in the mud and did not manage to cut down a single tree.

Karworo says the spirit of the sacred forest stopped the truck.

But he also remembers his aunts and relatives physically protesting to protect what they say is their priceless community forest.

"[The logging company] said the government already gave them papers to enter the forest," he recalls nearly 20 years later. "The people said, 'No, this is our traditional forest. We are reserving it for our great-grandchildren. We are protecting it for them.' "

The road leading to the village of Cobiana, Guinea-Bissau, which is home to a sacred forest, on Sept. 11, 2019.
/ Ricci Shryock
/
Ricci Shryock
The road leading to the village of Cobiana, Guinea-Bissau, which is home to a sacred forest, on Sept. 11, 2019.

Despite the residents' pleas, the loggers' large machine went in to cut down the timber. Karworo says it got stuck in the mud for months.

In areas throughout West African countries such as Liberia, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau, communities have designated biodiversity hotspots, including forests and lagoons, as sacred. They believe no price can be placed on the plants and animals that live there. Many are forbidden from entering the areas, where traditional rites of passage and justice ceremonies take place. This system has served as a conservation tool respected by these communities for generations.

A festival to celebrate the end of the harvest season in Mlomp, Senegal, on Feb. 22, 2021.
/ Ricci Shryock
/
Ricci Shryock
A festival to celebrate the end of the harvest season in Mlomp, Senegal, on Feb. 22, 2021.
A tree stands near the edge of the sacred forest near Arame, in northern Guinea-Bissau, on Dec. 22, 2020.
/ Ricci Shryock
/
Ricci Shryock
A tree stands near the edge of the sacred forest near Arame, in northern Guinea-Bissau, on Dec. 22, 2020.
Men work at a log at a timber company in Buchanan, Liberia, on Nov. 18, 2022.
/ Ricci Shryock
/
Ricci Shryock
Men work at a log at a timber company in Buchanan, Liberia, on Nov. 18, 2022.

The amount of land that is conserved might be small in sacred spaces — typically no larger than 10 acres — but the system is built on communities living within protected lands and developing and nurturing their symbiotic relationship with nature. The system starkly contrasts with some current, non-Indigenous North American methods of prohibiting humans from living in certain protected areas.

At a small lagoon between the ocean and mangroves in Barconie, Liberia, people can swim and wade, but they are prohibited from killing a single fish.

"All of the fish that you see in the water there, they are all the people in the community," says the town chairman, Alphonso Dennis. "They are the children of the community. That's how we were taught. If you kill one of those fish, someone in the community will be affected."

The residents of Barconie, Liberia, fish from the ocean on Nov. 16, 2022. A sacred lagoon close to the town is off-limits from being exploited.
/ Ricci Shryock
/
Ricci Shryock
The residents of Barconie, Liberia, fish from the ocean on Nov. 16, 2022. A sacred lagoon close to the town is off-limits from being exploited.
Jorge Sambu is a "balobera," whose job is to guard the sacred forest and help organize when meetings and initiations can be held, near in Arame, Guinea-Bissau, on Dec. 22, 2020.
/ Ricci Shryock
/
Ricci Shryock
Jorge Sambu is a "balobera," whose job is to guard the sacred forest and help organize when meetings and initiations can be held, near in Arame, Guinea-Bissau, on Dec. 22, 2020.
Residents of Barconie stand over their sacred lagoon after a ceremony on Nov. 16, 2022.
/ Ricci Shryock
/
Ricci Shryock
Residents of Barconie stand over their sacred lagoon after a ceremony on Nov. 16, 2022.

In nearby David's Town, Borbor Kealeh has protected a small area of traditional forest for more than 40 years — as he says his parents did before him. "The love of the human side, and of the forest on this side — we love both sides. We cannot pick one side," he says.

In southern Senegal, women are often the "queens" of sacred forests. Diakine Sambou, who has guarded a sacred forest in the country's Casamance region for decades, says her role is to act as an interlocutor between nature and the community.

Women gather at the entrance to a sacred forest on Feb. 24, 2021, in Casamance, Senegal, where residents come for medical treatments.
/ Ricci Shryock
/
Ricci Shryock
Women gather at the entrance to a sacred forest on Feb. 24, 2021, in Casamance, Senegal, where residents come for medical treatments.
Women walk past the edge of a sacred forest of Cobiana, in northern Guinea-Bissau, on Dec. 11, 2021.
/ Ricci Shryock
/
Ricci Shryock
Women walk past the edge of a sacred forest of Cobiana, in northern Guinea-Bissau, on Dec. 11, 2021.

"It's a strong relationship," she says. "We don't do anything without nature's permission, and if you don't take care of the trees, the environment will remind you of what you have done. No one enters the sacred forest to cut down the trees there, never, never. It's sacred."

Guardians like Sambou often speak in vague terms when describing their forests. One reason is because an essential element in keeping the forests sacred is ensuring their traditions stay secret.

Patients with various mental and physical ailments wait for their appointments with the sacred forest priestesses in Casamance, Senegal, on Feb. 24, 2021.
/ Ricci Shryock
/
Ricci Shryock
Patients with various mental and physical ailments wait for their appointments with the sacred forest priestesses in Casamance, Senegal, on Feb. 24, 2021.

But another reason the descriptions are hard to translate is that when people like Kealeh speak about their forests, they describe time in terms of generations instead of days or years. They measure value in an invisible feeling of peace of mind, rather than in dollars and cents.

While the terms and words may be different, the message is clear: The community's existence is intricately linked to the well-being and survival of the biodiversity and natural resources surrounding it.

In David's Town, in Grand Bassa County, Liberia, there is a small traditional forest that is put aside specifically to be left untouched — and has been for generations. Borbor Kealeh, pictured here on Nov. 16, 2022, is the elder charged with making sure it stays protected.
/ Ricci Shryock
/
Ricci Shryock
In David's Town, in Grand Bassa County, Liberia, there is a small traditional forest that is put aside specifically to be left untouched — and has been for generations. Borbor Kealeh, pictured here on Nov. 16, 2022, is the elder charged with making sure it stays protected.
The residents of Barconie, Liberia, fish from the ocean on Nov. 16, 2022. A sacred lagoon close to the town is off-limits from being exploited.
/ Ricci Shryock
/
Ricci Shryock
The residents of Barconie, Liberia, fish from the ocean on Nov. 16, 2022. A sacred lagoon close to the town is off-limits from being exploited.
A young girl in Cobiana, near the sacred forest of Cobiana, in northern Guinea-Bissau, on Dec. 11, 2020.
/ Ricci Shryock
/
Ricci Shryock
A young girl in Cobiana, near the sacred forest of Cobiana, in northern Guinea-Bissau, on Dec. 11, 2020.

Communities far beyond these countries' borders benefit from the conservation-minded relationship these communities in West and Central Africa have with nature, says Ranece Jovial Ndjeudja, Congo Basin forest campaign manager for Greenpeace Africa.

"Those forests have the capacity to capture carbon from the air, which is one of the key areas that is being used at the international level to ensure the fight against climate change," Ndjeudja says. He is critical of efforts to monetize the carbon captures from communities who have long-term, valued relationships with forests.

Women dance at a funeral celebration in Cobiana, Guinea-Bissau, on Sept. 11, 2019.
/ Ricci Shryock
/
Ricci Shryock
Women dance at a funeral celebration in Cobiana, Guinea-Bissau, on Sept. 11, 2019.
Maimouna brings back fish to cook for dinner in Barconie, Liberia, on Nov. 16, 2022.
/ Ricci Shryock
/
Ricci Shryock
Maimouna brings back fish to cook for dinner in Barconie, Liberia, on Nov. 16, 2022.
A festival to celebrate the end of the harvest season in Mlomp, Senegal, on Feb. 22, 2021.
/ Ricci Shryock
/
Ricci Shryock
A festival to celebrate the end of the harvest season in Mlomp, Senegal, on Feb. 22, 2021.

Placing a dollar value on conserving these areas risks destroying the very belief system and way of thinking that have ensured their survival in the first place, researchers say. Their value cannot be translated into monetary terms, says Aby Sene, professor and researcher at Clemson University in South Carolina.

"The example of the Casamance, these sacred forests are maintained by the Diola people, who maintained their way of life and resisted colonial and capitalist structures, and that is precisely why these lands are rich in biodiversity for so long," Sene says.

Anthony Gardrea cuts down branches to clear way for his pineapple farm in Dologan's Town, Liberia, on Nov. 16, 2022.
/ Ricci Shryock
/
Ricci Shryock
Anthony Gardrea cuts down branches to clear way for his pineapple farm in Dologan's Town, Liberia, on Nov. 16, 2022.
The residents of Barconie, Liberia, fish from nearby ocean on Nov. 16, 2022. A sacred lagoon close to the town is off-limits from being exploited.
/ Ricci Shryock
/
Ricci Shryock
The residents of Barconie, Liberia, fish from nearby ocean on Nov. 16, 2022. A sacred lagoon close to the town is off-limits from being exploited.
A young woman and man walk through Dologan's Town, Liberia, on Nov. 16, 2022.
/ Ricci Shryock
/
Ricci Shryock
A young woman and man walk through Dologan's Town, Liberia, on Nov. 16, 2022.

She says it is essential to reinforce communal stewardship of the land, rather than ownership.

"My dad is Serer," she says referring to a Senegalese group of people, "and in the Serer culture, there is this thing that says land is not owned by the people who are on it right now. We have borrowed it from the ancestors, and we must preserve it for the unborn."

Sene says, "People are taking care of the land because they understand that it is borrowed — borrowed from the ancestors and preserved for the unborn."

Children play on Dec. 22, 2020, in Arame, Guinea-Bissau, at the home of Jorge Sambu, a "balobera" whose job is to guard the sacred forest and help organize when meetings and initiations can be held in the area.
/ Ricci Shryock
/
Ricci Shryock
Children play on Dec. 22, 2020, in Arame, Guinea-Bissau, at the home of Jorge Sambu, a "balobera" whose job is to guard the sacred forest and help organize when meetings and initiations can be held in the area.
Residents of Barconie stand over their sacred lagoon after a ceremony on Nov. 16, 2022.
/ Ricci Shryock
/
Ricci Shryock
Residents of Barconie stand over their sacred lagoon after a ceremony on Nov. 16, 2022.

Ricci Shryock is a journalist and photographer in Dakar, Senegal. See more of her work on her website, RicciMedia.com, and on Instagram, at @ricci_s.

Reporting for this project was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the center's Rainforest Journalism Fund.

Grace Widyatmadja photo edited this story.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ricci Shryock