Indigenous Beliefs and Environmental Stewardship: A Rural Ghana Experience

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ABSTRACT. Despite recent interest in indigenous knowledge, few studies have linked it with indigenous beliefs system and its role in environmental stewardship. This link is important to cultural geographers interested in the study of small-scale cultural groups and how they relate to the environment. It also helps us understand the cultural dimensions of environmental stewardship and resource conservation. Based on a study of a monkey sanctuary in Ghana, West Africa, this paper argues that indigenous belief systems form an essential part of indigenous knowledge and that they can serve as a very effective tool for the protection of sacred groves and isolated patches of rainforests that have fallen victim to development as a result of increasing globalization, population pressures, and the spread of Christianity. The paper concludes that indigenous beliefs are not just a relic of the past but something that is needed today and may be needed in future for the conservation of natural resources in indigenous societies.


The landscapes and cultural geographies of indigenous knowledge have been studied from a variety of perspectives, and have generated a large body of research. This includes exploration of Eastern religion and Native American worldviews for insights on environmental management (Callicott 1994; Brunn and Kalland 1995); the environmental philosophy and land ethics of American Indians (Venables et al. 1980; Berkes 1988); cultural differences and similarities among native communities in the United States of America (Ali 2003); indigenous knowledge in environmental assessment in Ghana (Appiah-Opoku 2005); indigenous knowledge systems for plant protection (Tick et al. 1995); indigenous knowledge of yak breeding and cross-breeding among nomads in western China (Wu 1998); and local knowledge of dryland salinity in the Hunter Valley of Australia (Fisher 1995). Although these studies provide significant insights into the ongoing debate regarding the relevance of indigenous knowledge in natural resource and environmental management, little focus has been given in scholarly sources to the link between indigenous knowledge and indigenous beliefs. This link is important to cultural geographers interested in the study of the adaptive processes by which the nature of society and the features of culture shape environmental stewardship.

Environmental stewardship implies caring for, ensuring well-being, maintaining vigilance, accepting personal responsibility, and understanding the importance of environmental accountability (Beavis 1994). It also implies responsible management of natural resources for the benefit of present and future generations of people, plants, and animals. In this sense, environmental stewardship challenges humans to be good stewards, custodians, bailiffs or shepherds of creation, and charges us with the responsibility for its care (Attfield 1983). This notion of stewardship has featured prominently in environmental history, particularly in theological discussions of the nature of human responsibility to the nonhuman natural world (Warren 1994). The theoretical underpinnings are found in several religious accounts of creation which grant humans dominion over the fish of the sea, and everything living upon the Earth.

Warren (1994) argues that dominion implies both domination and stewardship. On one hand, humans are said to have domination over the natural environment in ways that permit us to treat nature as we please. This view sees nature as having merely instrumental or extrinsic value and provides justification for humanity's exploitation of natural resources on grounds that it is our right as superior agents, heirs and controllers of God's kingdom. In another sense, dominion is tantamount to stewardship; that our creator expects us to protect and preserve the natural world in much the same way as good shepherds would tend their flock. Thus, a stewardship ethic as an environmental and theological position regarding human relationship toward natural resources carries with it certain moral responsibilities and attitudes including an obligation to preserve and protect these resources in ways that reflect benevolent care and concern for the environment itself (Attfield 1983). …