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Towards a Community Environmental Ethic

Number 22 - July 2001

A. Attiti





Different Kenyan communities hold different cultural views and beliefs on the relationship between humans and nature. Any attempt to understand this relationship without any understanding of the culture of a community is bound to fail. Culture therefore, forms a vital content of environmental ethics. In the context of this article, culture can be said to be a set of shared values, beliefs, norms, knowledge and assumptions about nature that are transmitted from one generation to the next through the processes of socialisation and education.

Plant resources were purely protected through cultural practices and beliefs in many communities. To some extent, this is still true even today. Traditional forest management in some local communities involve the use of elaborate taboos, myths, folklore and other culturally controlled systems to bring coherence within a predetermined community environmental ethic. Many local communities still regard certain plant species as sacred; cutting down such sacred trees is regarded as unethical and taboo. In the event one cuts down a sacred tree a ritual must be performed; such a ritual entails sacrificing an animal at the place where the tree has been cut. One example of a sacred tree from Kenya is Kigelia africana (the sausage tree) that is believed to shelter communal spirits of female fertility. In the community where this tree is sacred, it is unethical to cut it down; this ensures its conservation.

Other than sacred trees, most Kenyan communities still preserve specific sites for cultural reasons. Such sites or sacred groves have been found to possess high species diversity compared to the areas neighbouring them. Depending on the cultural perceptions of a community, a preserved site may be a rock, a cliff, a volcano crater, a lake, a hill or a forest.

Sacred Groves and Environmental Ethics

Kenya has over 1000 traditional sacred groves that differ in their use and size. The majority of them are small and are only used by a particular family or clan. But a few are still famous and are known to an entire community and thus communally conserved. Turning such sites into community gardens can improve their management and the sharing of cultural values across communities. The type of management of sacred groves varies from strict cultural rules permitting no entry, to more lenient ones that allow limited exploitative activities. Community elders usually control activities within sacred groves.

Due to community shared cultural values, sacred groves have acted as refuges for plants and animal species. In this way, a community’s culture is associated with the conservation of biodiversity through an already established community environmental ethic. Sadly, in recent years there has been an erosion of cultural values in many local communities leading to less respect for sacred sites. Nevertheless, some local community dwellers are still proud of cultural values and preserved sacred sites. A community garden established within such cultural environment can immensely draw on the cultural experiences of these community dwellers. There is an imperative need to conserve traditional sacred groves as part of an existing local natural resource and a part of our national heritage. To effectively realise this, research was undertaken to establish written documents about sacred places within libraries or in the communities. Such research was carried out in 1998 by the Kenya Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge (KENRIK) of the National Museums of Kenya. The research, which was funded by UNESCO, took the form of a survey to determine the status of some selected traditional sacred groves in the country. Its goal was to document baseline data on the past and present cultural values associated with the sacred sites. The survey demonstrated a direct link between cultural values and biodiversity conservation. A total of 19 sacred groves were surveyed and the majority were found to have higher plant species diversity than their immediate surrounding areas. One such sacred site that showed a higher plant species diversity was Thui Hill, situated about 100 km east of Nairobi.

Traditionally, the local people around Thui Hill offer sacrifices on top of it in the event of disease outbreaks, before the rain season for good harvest and before using a new harvest. Only elderly men and women of good morals should perform these sacrifices. There are several do’s and don’ts relating to Thui Hill which, in my view have contributed towards a community environmental ethic. For instance:

  • one is not supposed to settle, farm and plant trees on the Hill
  • visitors are not allowed on the Hill unaccompanied
  • one cannot point at the Hill
  • one should never make a complete circle around the Hill
  • only locals who have previously made donations towards offerings are allowed to take part in offering ceremonies.

There is no doubt that these cultural rules (ethics) have contributed to the existing rich plant species diversity at Thui Hill sacred grove. The KENRIK research team made several discoveries on the Hill: one plant species that was probably new to plant science, three plant species that were first records in the entire floral region, one plant species that had only been previously collected from Uganda, and a number of rare plant species. Such discovery can only be attributed to the sacredness of the site and therefore further contributes to our understanding of the interrelationship between culture and environmental ethics.

Other than being sacred, Thui Hill is also used in several other ways by the local community e.g. it is a source of fruits and medicinal plants. However, to enable one to collect medicinal plants one is required to inform the community elders, this ensures sustainable harvesting.

Many of the sacred sites are however faced with a number of threats: human population pressure, negative attitudes of the younger generation towards cultural values and modernism. If these sites are to survive together with their associated biodiversity, then quick conservation actions are needed. One strategy, as mentioned earlier, is to transform them with the approval of the local communities into community gardens. The community gardens can then be used to teach cultural values for sustainability.

Communicating Cultural Values Through Community Gardens

Cultural values contrast markedly with science-based values that form the foundation for most conservation and botanic garden management strategies today. In many of the botanic gardens the emphasis is on the teaching of the science-based values, which are associated with the notion that sustainable development is the true ethic for human beings.

In my opinion, community gardens are best placed for the teaching of cultural values in the local communities where they are situated. If well incorporated into education and awareness in programmes at community gardens, cultural values have a lot to contribute towards a community environmental ethic. However, critical to the success of any community garden’s education and awareness programme is a sound understanding of the local cultural context by an educator. Aspects of cultural beliefs and perceptions of a community that contribute to sustainable living need to be identified and documented for dissemination through appropriate education programmes. Not all cultural values contribute to sustainable management of plant resources or biodiversity conservation. Therefore, before communicating cultural values and practices to an audience in a community garden, special consideration from an ecological standpoint must be made so that the practice may not become unethical. Consequently, more emphasis should be placed on those cultural values that complement the sustainable development ethic that comprises of ecological, social, economic and personal values. To effectively achieve this, an educator at a community garden would be required to engage in cultural introspection to understand clearly the cultural dynamics to be taught.

One major shortcoming of cultural values however, is they do not reflect discussion, reason and compromise. They are normally principles or accepted standards of what a local community perceives as worthy, ethical or desirable and thus there is no room for dissent. Nevertheless, the acceptance of a shared set of cultural values ensures the existence of a community environmental ethic as opposed to a personal environmental ethic. This reduces tensions and conflicts in biodiversity use thereby encouraging trust and security. 

ResumeResumé:Pour une Éthique Environnementale Pour la Communauté

Depuis des temps immémoriaux, les populations locales du Kenya ont des pratiques culturales et des croyances qui vont dans le sens de la conservation de la biodiversité. Elles changent avec les lieux et dépendent des groupes ethniques. Bien qu’un assez grand nombre de communautés locales ait encore des pratiques culturales et des croyances qui vont dans le sens d’une éthique environnementale communautaire, il y a une rapide décroissance des pratiques indigènes et des valeurs culturelles dues à l’avancement du modernisme et de la christianisation. Ces valeurs et pratiques disparaissent rapidement et perdent leur prestige plus particulièrement auprès des générations nouvelles. Pour renverser la vapeur, des efforts sont faits pour installer des jardins communautaires auprès des populations locales affectées, dans le but de conserver des pratiques et des croyances culturales à travers des programmes d’éducation et d’éveil. Une fois cette nouvelle initiative mise en place, les jardins communautaires au Kenya pourront jouer un rôle significatif pour la promotion d’une éthique communautaire environnementale issue des pratiques culturales anciennes pour le développement durable. Les idées sous jacentes sont la responsabilité sociale, le respect des différentes formes de vie, la vie en harmonie avec la nature et la prise de conscience de l’intérêt du travail en commun.

ResumenResumen: Hacia Una Comunidad Ecológicamente Ética

Desde tiempos inmemoriales, las comunidades locales en Kenia, han tenido una cultura y creencias que favorecían la conservación de la biodiversidad. Esto varia de un sitio a otro dependiendo del grupo étnico. Aunque algunas comunidades locales todavía tienen prácticas culturales y creencias que fomentan una comunidad ecológicamente ética, hay una pérdida rápida del conocimiento del modernismo y del cristianismo. Estos valores y prácticas están desapareciendo y perdiendo su prestigio especialmente en las generaciones jóvenes. Para cambiar esta tendencia se están haciendo esfuerzos para llevar a cabo el establecimiento de jardines comunitarios en las comunidades locales afectadas con el objetivo de conservar las prácticas culturales y las creencias a través de la educación y programas de concienciación. Una vez que esta iniciativa se haya establecido, los jardines comunitarios en Kenia empezaran a jugar un papel significante para mantener una comunidad éticamente medioambiental que surge de la práctica de los valores culturales para la sostenibilidad. Estos valores incluyen el sentido social de la responsabilidad, una conciencia hacia todas las formas de vida, una vida en harmonía con la naturaleza y el compromiso con el trabajo en grupo.