Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Environmental and Social History of African Sacred Groves: A Tanzanian Case Study

  • Michael J. Sheridan


Sacred groves figure prominently in efforts to create community-based conservation in Africa. Although they are often conceptualized in functionalist terms as relics of climax forest and peak cultural florescence, attention to the intersections of ecological and social dynamics offers a framework for understanding African sacred groves that avoids assumptions of steady states of habitat and culture. This article, based on a case study from the North Pare Mountains of northeastern Tanzania, demonstrates that the sacredness of these groves is embedded in social institutions, and that the deeply contested nature of these meanings produces African landscapes. It concludes that sacred groves, as examples of cultural and ecological co-evolution, require research based on hybrid social and natural scientific methods. The implication for conservation policy is that sacred groves are not simply local forms of conservation, and that their management demands cooperation among local, national, and global institutions.



Hide All
Adams, William, and Hulme, David. 2001. “Conservation and Community: Changing Narratives, Policies and Practices in African Conservation.” In African Wildlife and Livelihoods, edited by Hulme, David and Murphree, Marshall, 923. Cape Town: David Philip.
Alden Wily, Liz. 2008. “Are Sacred Forests Safe? An Examination of the Legal Status of Forests in sub-Saharan Africa.” In African Sacred Groves: Ecological Dynamics and Social Change, edited by Sheridan, Michael and Nyamweru, Celia, 207–20. Oxford: James Currey.
Althaus, Georg. 1894. “Untersuchungsreise nach dem Ugueno-Gebirge.” Evangelisch-Lutherisches Missionsblatt (24): 449–53.
Anane, Mike. 1997. “Religion and Conservation in Ghana.” United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Services,
Anoliefo, G., Isikhuemhen, O., and Ochije, N.. 2003. “Environmental Implications of the Erosion of Cultural Taboo Practices in Awka-South Local Government Area of Anambra State, Nigeria.“ Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 16: 281–96.
Bagine, R. 1998. “Biodiversity in Ramogi Hill, Kenya, and Its Evolutionary Significance.” African Journal of Ecology 36 (3): 251–63.
Baker, Richard. 1931. Men of the Trees. New York: Dial Press.
Batterbury, Simon, Forsyth, Timothy, and Thomson, Koy. 1997. “Environmental Transformations in Developing Countries: Hybrid Research and Democratic Policy.” Geographical Journal 163 (2): 126–32.
Baum, Robert. 1999. Shrines of the Slave Trade. New York: Oxford University Press.
Baumann, Oscar. 1891. Usambara und seine Nachbargebiete. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer.
Berkes, Fikret, et al. 1998. “Exploring the Basic Ecological Unit: Ecosystem-like Concepts in Traditional Societies.” Ecosystems 1: 409–15.
Bravman, William. 1998. Making Ethnic Ways. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinneman.
Byers, Bruce, Cunliffe, Robert, and Hudak, Andrew. 2001. “Linking the Conservation of Culture and Nature: A Case Study of Sacred Forests in Zimbabwe.” Human Ecology 29 (2): 187218.
Campbell, Michael O'Neal. 2004. “Traditional Forest Protection and Woodlots in the Coastal Savannah of Ghana.” Environmental Conservation 31 (3): 225–32.
Castro, Peter. 1990. “Sacred Groves and Social Change in Kirinyaga, Kenya.” In Social Change and Applied Anthropology, edited by Chaiken, Miriam and Fleuret, Anne, 277–89. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.
Chevalier, A. 1933. “Les bois sacrés des noirs, sanctuaries de la nature.” Compte rendue de la Société de Biogeographie 1933: 37.
Chidhakwa, Zvidzai. 2003. “Traditional Institutions Manage Their Nyakwaa and Chizire Forests in Chimanimani, Zimbabwe.” Policy Matters 12: 132–40.
Chouin, Gérard. 2002. “Sacred Groves in History.” IDS Bulletin 33 (2): 3946.
Colding, Johan, and Folke, Carl. 2001. “Social Taboos: ‘Invisible’ Systems of Local Resource Management and Biological Conservation.” Ecological Applications 11 (2): 584600.
Colson, Elizabeth. 1997. “Places of Power and Shrines of the Land.” Paideuma: Mitteilungen zur Kulturkunde 43: 4757.
Daneel, Marthinus. 2001. African Earthkeepers. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
Decher, Jan. 1997. “Conservation, Small Mammals, and the Future of Sacred Groves in West Africa.” Biodiversity and Conservation 6: 1007–26.
Dorm-Adzobu, Clement, Ampadu-Agyei, Okyeame, and Veit, Peter. 1991. Religious Beliefs and Environmental Protection: The Malshegu Sacred Grove in Northern Ghana. Nairobi: ACTS Press and World Resources Institute.
Dudley, Nigel, Higgins-Zogib, Liza, and Mansourian, Stephanie. 2005. Beyond Belief: Linking Faiths and Protected Areas to Support Biodiversity Conservation. Gland, Switzerland: World Wide Fund for Nature.
Elliott, Jennifer, and Campbell, Michael O'Neal. 2002. “The Environmental Imprints and Complexes of Social Dynamics in Rural Africa: Cases from Zimbabwe and Ghana.” Geoforum 33: 221–37.
Ellis, Stephen, and ter Haar, Gerrie. 2004. Worlds of Power: Religious Thought and Political Practice in Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fairhead, James, and Leach, Melissa. 1996. Misreading the African Landscape. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fairhead, James, and Leach, Melissa. 1997. “Culturing Trees: Socialized Knowledge in the Political Ecology of Kissia and Kuranko Forest Islands of Guinea.” In Nature Is Culture, edited by Seeland, Klaus, 718. London: Intermediate Technology Development Group Publishing.
Fortes, Meyer. 1945. The Dynamics of Clanship among the Tallensi. London: Oxford University Press.
Fortmann, Louise. 1988. “The Tree Tenure Factor in Agroforestry, with Particular Reference to Africa.” In Whose Trees? Proprietary Dimensions of Forestry, edited by Bruce, John and Fortmann, Louise, 1633. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.
Frazer, James. 1890. The Golden Bough. London: MacMillan and Company.
Fuchs, Hans. 1901. “Grundung der neuen Station Schigatini in Nord-Pare.” Evangeslisches-Lutherisches Missionsblatt 1901: 3843.
Fundamentals of Adult Education. 19551956a. “UNESCO Associated Projects–X: Community Development in the Pare District of Tanganyika, 1950–54.” Fundamentals of Adult Education 7: 160–67.
Fundamentals of Adult Education. 19551956b. “UNESCO Associated Projects–X: Community Development in the Pare District of Tanganyika, 1950–54.” Fundamentals of Adult Education 8: 3135.
Gadgil, Madhav, and Guha, Ramachandra. 1992. This Fissured Land. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gerdén, C., and Mtallo, S.. 1990. Traditional Forest Reserves in Babati District, Tanzania. International Rural Development Centre, Working Paper #128. Uppsala: Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.
Geschiere, Peter. 2004. “Ecology, Belonging and Xenophobia: The 1994 Forest Law in Cameroon and the Issue of ‘Community.’” In Rights and the Politics of Recognition in Africa, edited by Englund, Harri and Nyamnjoh, Francis, 237–59. London: Zed Books.
Gillson, Lindsey, Sheridan, Michael, and Brockington, Dan. 2003. “Representing Environments in Flux: Case Studies from East Africa.” Area 35 (4): 371–89.
Gokhale, Y., et al. 1998. “Sacred Woods, Grasslands, and Waterbodies as Self-Organized Systems of Conservation.” In Conserving the Sacred for Biodiversity Management, edited by Ramakrishnan, P., Saxena, K., and Chandrashekara, U., 365–96. Enfield, N.H.: Science Publishers.
Greene, Sandra. 2002. Sacred Sites and the Colonial Encounter. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
GTZ. 2003. Tanzania Forestry Action Plan North Pare Project,
The Guardian. 1997. “Population Explosion Cause of Soil Degradation in Pare, Dar es Salaam.” October 24.
Guillot, Bernard. 1980. “La creation et la destruction des bosquets Koukouya, symboles d'une civilisation et de son declin.” Cahiers O.R.S.T.O.M. Serie Sciences Humaines 17: 177–89.
Håkansson, N. Thomas. 1998. “Rulers and Rainmakers in Precolonial South Pare, Tanzania: Exchange and Ritual Experts in Political Centralization.” Ethnology 37 (3): 263–83.
Heckenberger, Michael, et al. 2003. “Amazonia 1492: Pristine Forest or Cultural Parkland?Science 301: 1710–14.
Hines, Deborah, and Eckman, Karlyn. 1993. Indigenous Multipurpose Trees of Tanzania. Ottawa: Cultural Survival Canada.
Hughes, J. D. 1994. Pan's Travail: Environmental Problems of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Kimambo, Isaria. 1969. A Political History of the Pare of Tanzania, c. 1500–1900. Nairobi: East African Publishing House.
Kimambo, Isaria. 1991. Penetration and Protest in Tanzania: The Impact of the World Economy on the Pare, 1860–1960. London: James Currey.
Kimambo, Isaria. 1995. “Environmental Control and Hunger in the Mountains and Plains of Northeastern Tanzania.” In Custodians of the Land: Ecology and Culture in the History of Tanzania, edited by Maddox, Greg, Giblin, James, and Kimambo, Isaria, 7195. Athens: Ohio University Press.
Kimambo, Isaria, and Omari, Cuthbert. 1972. “The Development of Religious Thought and Centres among the Pare.” In The Historical Study of African Religion, edited by Ranger, Terrence and Kimambo, Isaria, 111–21. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kjekshus, Helge. 1977. Ecology Control and Economic Development in East African History. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kopytoff, Igor. 1988. “The Internal African Frontier: The Making of African Political Culture.” In The African Frontier, edited by Kopytoff, Igor, 385. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Larson, Anne, and Ribot, Jesse. 2005. “Democratic Decentralisation through a Natural Resource Lens: An Introduction.” In Democratic Decentralisation through a Natural Resource Lens, edited by Ribot, Jesse and Larson, Anne, 125. London: Routledge.
Leach, Melissa, and Mearns, Robin, eds. 1996. The Lie of the Land: Challenging Received-Wisdom on the African Environment. London: International African Institute.
Lebbie, Aiah, and Freudenberger, Mark Schoonmaker. 1996. “Sacred Groves in Africa: Forest Patches in Transition.” In Forest Patches in Tropical Landscapes, edited by Scholhas, John and Greenberg, Russell, 300–23. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
Lebbie, Aiah, and Guries, Raymond. 2008. “The Role of Sacred Groves in Biodiversity Conservation in Sierra Leone.” In African Sacred Groves: Ecological Dynamics and Social Change, edited by Sheridan, Michael and Nyamweru, Celia. Oxford: James Currey.
Lebulu, Josaphat. 1979. “Religion as the Dominant Element of the Superstructure among the Pare of Tanzania.” Social Compass 36: 417–59.
Madeweya, K., Oka, H., and Matsumoto, M.. 2004. “Sustainable Management of Sacred Forests and Their Potential for Eco-tourism in Zanzibar.” Shinrin Sogo Kenkyujo kenkyu hokoku [Bulletin of the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute] 3 (1): 3348.
Manor, James. 2005. “User Committees: A Potentially Damaging Second Wave of Decentralisation?” In Democratic Decentralisation through a Natural Resource Lens, edited by Ribot, Jesse and Larson, Anne, 192231. London: Routledge.
Mason, H. 1952. “Progress in Pare.” Corona 4 (6): 212–19.
Mbwana, S. n.d. Personal diary, 19241965. Notebook in possession of Mzee Godwin Ndama, Kiriche, Usangi, Tanzania.
Meyer, Hans. 1891. Across East African Glaciers. London: George Philip and Son.
Mgumia, F., and Oba, G.. 2003. “Potential Role of Sacred Groves in Biodiversity Conservation in Tanzania.” Environmental Conservation 30 (3): 259–65.
Mwihomeke, Steven, et al.Traditionally Protected Forests and Nature Conservation in the North Pare Mountains and Handeni District, Tanzania.” Journal of East African Natural History 87: 279–90.
Myers, Norman, et al. 2000. “Biodiversity Hotspots for Conservation Priorities.” Nature 403: 853–58.
Netting, Robert. 1969. “Marital Relations in the Jos Plateau of Nigeria.” American Anthropologist 71: 1037–45.
Newmark, William. 2002. Conserving Biodiversity in East African Forests. Berlin: Springer Verlag.
Nyamweru, Celia. 1996. “Sacred Groves Threatened by Development: The Kaya Forests of Kenya.” Cultural Survival Quarterly 20 (3): 1921.
Nyamweru, Celia, et al. 2008. “The Kaya Forests of Coastal Kenya: ‘Remnant Patches’ or Dynamic Entities?” In African Sacred Groves: Ecological Dynamics and Social Change, edited by Sheridan, Michael and Nyamweru, Celia, 6286. Oxford: James Currey.
Nyamweru, Celia, and Kimaru, Elias. 2008. “The Contribution of Ecotourism to the Conservation of Natural Sacred Sites: A Case Study from Coastal Kenya.” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture 2: 327–50.
Okafar, J. C., and Ladipo, D. O.. 1995. “Fetish Groves in the Conservation of Threatened Flora in Southern Nigeria.” In Conservation of Biodiversity in Africa, edited by Bennun, L. A., Aman, R. A., and Craftes, S. A., 167–79. Nairobi: National Museums of Kenya.
Okeke, S. 1999. “The Vanishing Sacred Groves in Igboland: A Case for Immediate Action.” Nigerian Heritage 8: 130–41.
Parkin, David. 1991. Sacred Void: Spatial Images of Work and Ritual among the Giriama of Kenya. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ranger, Terrence. 1988. “African Traditional Religion.” In The Study of Religion: Traditional and New Religions, edited by Clarke, Peter and Sutherland, Stewart, 106–14. London: Routledge.
Ranger, Terrence. 1999. Voices from the Rocks. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Rappaport, Roy. 1999. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Robertson, A., and Luke, W.. 1993. The Vegetation and Conservation Status of Kaya Coastal Forests in Kenya. Nairobi: National Museums of Kenya.
Schaaf, T. 1998. “Sacred Groves in Ghana: Experiences from an Integrated Study Project.” In Conserving the Sacred for Biodiversity Management, edited by Ramakrishnan, P., Saxena, K., and Chandrashekara, U., 145–50. Enfield, N.H.: Science Publishers.
Semgalawe, S. 1996. “Baseline Survey of Mwanga District, Part 1: Review of Existing Information.” Mwanga: NRBZ Development Program.
Semvua, A. F. 1996. “Mishitu and Mpungi: Exposure Draft.” TFAP-North Pare files, GTZ Mwanga.
Sheridan, Michael. 2002. “‘An Irrigation Intake Is Like a Uterus’: Culture and Agriculture in Precolonial North Pare, Tanzania.” American Anthropologist 104 (1): 7992.
Sheridan, Michael. 2004. “The Environmental Consequences of Independence and Socialism in North Pare, Tanzania, 1961–88.” Journal of African History 45 (1): 81102.
Sheridan, Michael. 2008. “The Dynamics of African Sacred Groves: Ecological, Social, and Symbolic Processes.” In African Sacred Groves: Ecological Dynamics and Social Change, edited by Sheridan, Michael and Nyamweru, Celia, 941. Oxford: James Currey.
Sibanda, Backson. 1997. “Governance and the Environment: The Role of African Religion in Sustainable Utilization of Natural Resources in Zimbabwe.” Forests, Trees and People Newsletter 34: 2731.
Spear, Thomas. 1978. The Kaya Complex. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau.
Spear, Thomas. 2003. “Neo-traditionalism and the Limits of Invention in British Colonial Africa.” Journal of African History 44 (1): 327.
Spivak, Gayatri. 1987. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Methuen.
Tanganyika African National Union (TANU). 1972. Siasa ni Kilimo [Politics is Agriculture]. Dar es Salaam: Government Printer.
Tchamie, Thiou. 2000. “Évolution de la flore et de la végétation des bois sacrés des Massifs Kabyè et des régions environnantes (Togo).” Lejeunia 164: 136.
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). 2004. Jackie and Kagyasi Sacred Grove Conservation Project. UNDP Small Grants Program,
United Nations Educational, Cultural, and Social Organization (UNESCO). 2005. “Conserving Cultural and Biological Diversity: The Role of Sacred Natural Sites and Cultural Landscapes.” Geneva: UNESCO.
United Nations Trusteeship Council. 1955. Official Records of the 15th Session of the Trusteeship Council 1955. Supplement 1, Resolutions 25 January–28 March 1955. New York: United Nations.
United Republic of Tanzania. 1997. Tanzania Forest Policy. Dar es Salaam.
von der Decken, Carl Claus, and Kersten, Otto. 1978 [1871]. Reisen in Ost-Afrika in den Jahren 1859 bis 1865. Graz, Austria: Akademische Druck und Verlagsanstalt.
Warren, D. Michael, and Pinkston, Jennifer. 1998. “Indigenous African Resource Management of a Tropical Rainforest Ecosystem: A Case Study of the Yoruba of Ara, Nigeria.” In Linking Social and Ecological Systems, edited by Berkes, Fikret and Folke, Carl, 158–89. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Willis, Justin. 1996. “The Northern Kayas of the Mijikenda: A Gazetteer, and an Historical Reassessment.” Azania 31: 7598.
Willis, K., Gillson, L., and Brncic, T.. 2004. “How Virgin Is Virgin Rainforest?Science 304: 402–3.
Ylhäisi, Jussi. 2000. “The Significance of the Traditional Forests and Rituals in Tanzania: A Case Study of Zigua, Gweno, and Nyamwezi Ethnic Groups.” Silva Carelica 34: 194219.
Ylhäisi, Jussi. 2004. “Indigenous Forests Fragmentation and the Significance of Ethnic Forests for Conservation in the North Pare, the Eastern Arc Mountains, Tanzania.” Fennia 182 (2): 109–32.

The Environmental and Social History of African Sacred Groves: A Tanzanian Case Study

  • Michael J. Sheridan


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed