U.S. Department of Agriculture: Forest Service -- National Agroforestry Center


Date of this Version



Human Ecology, Vol. 29, No. 2, 2001


This paper examines the role of traditional religious beliefs and traditional leaders in conserving remnant patches of a unique type of dry forest in the Zambezi Valley of northern Zimbabwe. We examined aerial photographs spanning more than three decades, interviewed and surveyed local residents, and met with communities to learn about the environmental history of the forests and the factors that have affected land use in the area. Our results show that forest loss is dramatically less in forests that are now considered sacred, or were in the past connected to sacred forests. This supports our hypothesis that traditional spiritual values have influenced human behavior affecting the forests, and have played a role in protecting them until now. We also found that rates of forest loss have been much higher in an area where traditional leaders are relatively disempowered within the post-independence political system compared to an area where traditional leaders have more power. These findings lead us to conclude that a strategy that links the conservation of culture and nature is likely to be more effective in conserving forests than a strategy that ignores traditional beliefs, values, and institutions.