Human Ecology

, Volume 29, Issue 2, pp 187–218 | Cite as

Linking the Conservation of Culture and Nature: A Case Study of Sacred Forests in Zimbabwe

  • Bruce A. Byers
  • Robert N. Cunliffe
  • Andrew T. Hudak


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.

conservation forests religion sustainable use wildlife Zimbabwe 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Bourdillon, M. F. C. (1987). Shona Peoples. Mambo Press, Gweru, Zimbabwe.Google Scholar
  2. Brown, M., and Wyckoff-Baird, B. (1992). Designing Integrated Conservation and Development Projects. Biodiversity Support Program, Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  3. Byers, B. A. (1996). Understanding and Influencing Behaviors in Conservation and Natural Resources Management. Biodiversity Support Program, Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  4. Byers, B. A. (2000). Understanding and Influencing Behaviors: A Guide. Biodiversity Support Program, Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  5. Child, B. (1996). The practice and principles of community-based wildlife management in Zimbabwe: The CAMPFIRE programme. Biodiversity and Conservation 5: 369–398.Google Scholar
  6. Child, G. (1996). The role of community-based wild resource management in Zimbabwe. Biodiversity and Conservation 5: 355–367.Google Scholar
  7. Cunliffe, R. N. (1992). An Ecological Resource Survey of the Communal Lands of Centenary District. WWF Multispecies Animal Production System Project, Project Paper No. 26, Oct. 1992. WWF-World Wide Fund for Nature, P.O. Box CY 1409, Causeway, Harare, Zimbabwe.Google Scholar
  8. Derman, B. (1996). Changing Land-Use in the Eastern Zambezi Valley: Socio-Economic Considerations. CASS-WWF Joint Paper. Centre for Applied Social Sciences, University of Zimbabwe, P.O. Box MP 167, Mount Pleasant, Harare, Zimbabwe.Google Scholar
  9. Dorm-Adzobu, C., Ampadu-Agyei, O., and Veit, P. G. (1991). Religious Beliefs and Environmental Protection: The Malshegu Sacred Grove in Northern Ghana. From the Ground Up Case Study No. 4, Center for International Development and Environment, World Resources Institute, Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  10. Dzingirai, V., and Bourdillon, M. F. C. (1997). Religous ritual and political control in Binga District, Zimbabwe. African Anthropology 4(2): 4–26.Google Scholar
  11. Fairhead, J., and Leach, M. (1997). Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosaic. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.Google Scholar
  12. Fearnside, P., and Ferraz, J. (1995). A conservation gap analysis of Brazil's Amazonian vegetation. Conservation Biology 9: 1134–1147.Google Scholar
  13. Hoare, R. (1998). Muzarabani Elephant Research and Monitoring: Interim Report, December 1998. Report prepared for the Muzarabani Rural District Council on behalf of the Muzarabani Elephant Project and the Zambezi Society.Google Scholar
  14. Hoare, R. E., and Du Toit, J. T. (1999). Coexistence between people and elephants in African savannas. Conservation Biology 13: 633–639.Google Scholar
  15. Hughes, D. M. (1995). Community-Based Forest Management in the Lucite (Rusitu) Valley: People and Policies of a Proposed Mozambique-Zimbabwe Transfrontier Conservation Area. Consultant's Report for the The World Bank, Maputo, Mozambique.Google Scholar
  16. Keel, S., Gentry, A. H., and Spinzi, L. (1993). Using vegetation analysis to facilitate the selection of conservation sites in eastern Paraguay. Conservation Biology 7: 66–75.Google Scholar
  17. Khan, M. L., Menon, S., and Bawa, K. S. (1997). Effectiveness of the protected area network in biodiversity conservation: a case-study of Meghalaya state. Biodiversity and Conservation 6: 853–868.Google Scholar
  18. Kiester, A., Scott, J. M., Csuti, B., Noss, R. F., Butterfield, B., Sahr, K., and White, D. (1996). Conservation prioritization using GAP data. Conservation Biology 10: 1332–1342.Google Scholar
  19. Lan, David. (1985). Guns and Rain: Guerillas and Spirit Mediums in Zimbabwe. James Curry Ltd: London and University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California.Google Scholar
  20. Maphala, J. M. (1994). Customary woodland management practices in Gokwe. In Clarke, J. (ed.), Building on Indigenous Natural Resource Management: Forestry Practices in Zimbabwe's Communal Lands. Forestry Commission of Zimbabwe, P.O. Box HG 595, Highlands, Harare, Zimbabwe, pp. 12–14.Google Scholar
  21. Metcalfe, S. (1994). The Zimbabwe Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE). In Western, D., and Wright, R. M. (eds.), Natural Connections: Perspectives in Community-based Conservation. Island Press, Washington, D.C. and Covelo, California, pp. 161–192.Google Scholar
  22. Murphree, M.W. (1994). The role of institutions in community-based conservation. In Western, D., and Wright, R. M. (eds.), op. cit., pp. 403–427.Google Scholar
  23. Musvoto, C. (1994). Resource use and management in Jinga Village. In Clark, J., op. cit., pp. 15–19.Google Scholar
  24. Muzarabani Rural District. (1995). CAMPFIRE Programme 1995 Annual Report. Muzarabani, Zimbabwe.Google Scholar
  25. Ntiamoa-Baidu, Y. (1995). Indigenous vs. introduced biodiversity conservation strategies: the case of protected area systems in Ghana. African Biodiversity Series Number 1, May 1995. Biodiversity Support Program, Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  26. Omari, C. K. (1990). Traditional African land ethics. In Engel, J. R., and Engel, J. Gibb (eds.), Ethics of Environment and Development: Global Challenge, International Response. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, Arizona, pp. 167–175.Google Scholar
  27. Peres, C. A., and Terborgh, J.W. (1995). Amazonian nature reserves: an analysis of the defensibility status of existing conservation unites and design criteria for the future. Conservation Biology 9: 34–46.Google Scholar
  28. Reid, W. V. (1996). Beyond protected areas: changing perceptions of ecological management objectives. In Szaro, R. C., and Johnson, D. W., op cit., pp. 442–453.Google Scholar
  29. Schoffeleers, J. M. (ed.). (1978). Guardians of the Land: Essays on Central African Territorial Cults. Mambo Press: Harare, Zimbabwe.Google Scholar
  30. Soulé, M. E., and M. A. Sanjayan. (1998). Conservation targets: Do they help? Science 279, 2060–2061.Google Scholar
  31. Spierenburg, M. (1995). The Role of the Mhondoro Cult in the Struggle for Control over Land in Dande (Northern Zimbabwe): Social Commentaries and the Influence of Adherents. CASS Occassional Paper—NRM Series; 1995. Centre for Applied Social Sciences, University of Zimbabwe, P.O. Box MP 167, Mount Pleasant, Harare, Zimbabwe.Google Scholar
  32. Surveyor-General. (1995). Mhangura, Sheet SE-36–1. Topographic map from Office of the Surveyor-General of Zimbabwe, P.O. Box CY 540, Causeway, Harare, Zimbabwe.Google Scholar
  33. Szaro, R. C., and Johnson, D.W. (eds.). (1996). Biodiversity in managed landscapes. Theory and practice. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York.Google Scholar
  34. Timberlake, J., and Cunliffe, R. N. (1997). Sites of Interest for Botanical Conservation in the Communal Lands of the ZambeziValley, Zimbabwe. Consultant's Report for The Zambezi Society. The Zambezi Society, P.O. Box HG 744, Highlands, Harare, Zimbabwe.Google Scholar
  35. Timberlake, J. R., Nobanda, N., Mapaure, I., and Mabasa, L. (1991). Sites of Interest for Conservation in Various Communal Lands of N. and W. Zimbabwe. Report No. 1, Communal Lands Vegetation Survey. National Herbarium, Harare, Zimbabwe. 16 pp.Google Scholar
  36. Wells, M., Brandon, K., and Hannah, L. (1992). People and Parks: Linking Protected Area Management with Local Communities. The World Bank, World Wildlife Fund, and U.S. Agency for International Development, Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  37. Zambezi Society. No date. The Muzarabani Experience. Number 3 of a series of occasional Backgrounder Papers. The Zambezi Society. The Zambezi Society, P.O. Box HG 744, Highlands, Harare, Zimbabwe.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bruce A. Byers
    • 1
  • Robert N. Cunliffe
    • 2
  • Andrew T. Hudak
    • 3
  1. 1.Falls ChurchUSA
  2. 2.The Zambezi SocietyHarareZimbabwe
  3. 3.Forestry Sciences LaboratoryUSDA Forest ServiceCorvallisUSA

Personalised recommendations