Sacred forests: valorization of traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources for sustainable management



  • NGO Circle for Conservation of Natural Resources (ONG Ce.Sa.Re.N)


  • 25/08/2016

  • REGION :

  • Western Africa


  • Benin (Gbévozoun and Gnahouizoun Sacred Forests)


  • An investigation of the valorization of traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources for sustainable management has been conducted in two sacred forests: Gbévozoun and Gnahouizoun. In the Gbevozoun sacred forest, 256 plants species are identified, 75 of which are exclusively encountered in the sacred forest. From the inventory, 191 plants out of the 256 are reportedly used for medicinal and nutritional purposes. Overall, 61 diseases and sicknesses could be treated with these plants. In the Gnahouizoun sacred forest, 168 plant species are identified, of which 81 plants (48.21%) are encountered only in the sacred forest. Of the 168 plant species, 110 are used in medicinal and nutritional programs, and 35 pathologies or sicknesses are treated with the use of these plants. Through collaboration between the Institute of Experimental Research in Medicine and Traditional Pharmacopeia (IREMPT), the CBRST pharmacognosy laboratory, and the NGO CeSaReN, a total of 32 traditional medicines, made using genetic resources and traditional knowledge, were tested via photochemical analysis, cellular and sub-chronic toxicity with rats, and microbiological assessment. Of the 32 traditional drugs reviewed, 24 traditional medicines proved safe and effective to be used for treating diseases for which they are traditionally used.


  • Benin, Genetic resources, Sacred forests, Traditional knowledge


  • Achille Orphée Lokossou, Bienvenu Mensah Bossou (ONG Ce.Sa.Re.N)

  • LINK:


Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.


[Note: this case study was originally published in the publication “Socio-ecological Production Landscapes and Seascapes (SEPLS) in Africa“]

Benin is a country located in West Africa. Geographically, it lies between latitudes 6–13° N and longitudes 0–4° E. With a hot and humid climate, Benin has more than 2,940 remnant sacred forests covering a total area of 18,360 ha. The majority of Benin’s population lives in rural areas. The most important socio-economic activities in the country center on agriculture, fisheries, livestock, commerce, and craft-making. Agriculture is the main source of wealth, with a contribution of more than 27% of the GDP. The sector employs more than 55% of the national workforce. Agricultural systems are dominated by extensive farming with shifting cultivation and slash-and-burn practices. Over 90% of sacred forests are adjacent to, or surrounded by crop fields. The practice of shifting cultivation threatens sacred forests across the country and is a cause of increased land pressure.

RAMSAR sites 1017 and 1018 contain over 500 sacred forests (Figure 1). The sites are located in southern Benin, in the coastal area between latitudes 1° 37′ 45”–2° 42′ 35” E and longitudes 6° 12′ 37”–7°1′ N. Sacred forests in Benin are generally small in size (2–20 ha) but rich in biodiversity.

Figure 1. Location of Ramsar sites 1017 and 1018. Source: Bienvenu BOSSOU

Functions and values

Sacred forests play many important roles and functions for human well-being. These include conservation and management of natural ecosystems, ecological functions (protection of water sources, protection of soils against erosion, and provision of habitats for animals and sacred plants), religious function (house the deities, place of worship, rituals or other ceremonies), economic function (harvesting of fuel wood, medicinal plants, and food plants), and sociocultural function (cemetery, places of initiation, meetings, blessing/curses, etc.).

The forests act as effective traditional laboratories. Dignitaries act as living libraries who are the repository of local knowledge based on these sacred forests. Furthermore, a sacred forest provides a refuge and sanctuary for native biodiversity of local ecosystems. They contain many rare plant and animal species, and even some red list species. Although these forests have not received legal or official protection status from the State, they had nevertheless been able to maintain the integrity of their resources until recently. They stand for a successful model of traditional biodiversity management and conservation. The principle of this method of conservation is based on awe and respect, inspired by traditional local beliefs, the strength of traditional authority, and the power of dignitaries and religious leaders.

Challenges and threats

Currently, through the combined effects of a number of factors, such as the emergence of new religions, high population growth, the weakness of traditional power and decline of associated beliefs, and the aggravating impoverishment of the rural population, religious taboos and restrictions are no longer observed. As a result, most sacred forests have become the subject of overuse and uncontrolled exploitation, leading to the degradation of their status or even total destruction. Studies recently undertaken on sacred groves in southern Benin (Lokossou 2012) have shown that 60% are in a state of advanced degradation. Between 1998 and 2013, 34% of sacred forests have experienced a significant reduction in area, and 14% have disappeared. The regressive trend affecting these ecosystems is a major threat to biodiversity and the lives of surrounding communities who rely heavily on ecosystem services. Despite their socioeconomic and ecological significance, these particular ecosystems have long been neglected by the scientific community and the forest administration. Indeed, they have been considered fringe elements of vegetation, and as such, have received little attention

Responses towards sustainable use and conservation

During 2012, with the financial support of the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO), an inventory study for the rehabilitation and sustainable management of sacred forests within RAMSAR sites 1017 and 1018 in Benin (ITTO 2012) was implemented by the NGO Club for the Conservation of Natural Resources (CeSaReN). CeSaReN was primarily tasked to collect baseline information on the sustainable management of sacred forests. The outputs of the implementation of this pre-project confirmed that:

  1. Sacred forests are true reservoirs of biodiversity and traditional laboratories and represent a successful model of traditional management and biodiversity conservation;
  2. Dignitaries and local communities are living libraries that hold traditional knowledge (TK);
  3. Genetic resources (GR) and their associated TK can offer both existing and potential markets for scientific research, development, and marketing of pharmaceuticals, food, agricultural, and industrial products;
  4. Erosion of GRs and the loss of associated TK are very real threats;
  5. Local people fear that their TK will be ridiculed.

Based on this information, the NGO CeSaReN, with the support of UNDP (GEF Small Grant Programme) decided to valorize the GRs and TK of two sacred forests, Gnanhouizoun and Gbevozoun, both located in Ramsar site 1,018. For this project, the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization, to the Convention on Biological Diversity, was employed (CeSaReN 2015). This protocol recognizes, supports, and protects the rights of local populations and communities to their traditional resources and knowledge (Article 12 of the Protocol). The general objective of this pre-project was to strengthen conservation and sustainable management of these sacred forests. The specific objectives are as follows:

  1. Strengthen the capacity of communities on Access and fair and equitable Benefit-Sharing, arising from the utilization of GRs (ABS).
  2. Develop a Bio-cultural Community Protocol (BCP) in accordance with the principles of the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-Sharing, from the use of GRs.
  3. Increase the income of the owners of sacred forests and TK, through development activities and promotion of the value chain concept, for some biogenetic resources (species) and TK, based on the ABS mechanism.
  4. Ensure the effective involvement of local communities in the implementation of the ABS process in Benin.

Methodological approach

Towards achieving the objectives of the project in the two selected sacred forests, four main field activities were implemented:

  1. Information: awareness of the stakeholders involved in the management of the two sacred forests: Information notes such as leaflets on the project and main concepts (ABS, Bio-cultural Protocols, and Nagoya Protocol etc.) were designed and used during the meetings, gathering together various actors at sites (as describe by photo1 or in a room);
  2. Inventory: the GRs, the TK associated with the GRs, and the rules of access. For this study, botanists, herbalist, and sociologists were used to conduct the activities. The GRs of plants and their use in the preparation of traditional medical products were identified and documented.
  3. Valorisation of GRs and TK:
    1. The first phase consisted of identification by local communities themselves; criteria for the selection of TK associated with GRs that should be promoted.
    2. In the second phase, the criteria of local actors have been cross-reference with those of the reference laboratories: the pharmacognosy laboratory of the Benin Scientific and Technical Research Centre (CBRST) and the National Program of the Pharmacopoeia Promotion and Traditional Medicine (PNPMT); to choose the GRs and TK that may be useful locally and internationally, as well as for research. Through a partnership with CBRST, the analysis and testing of the effectiveness of traditional medical products was conducted by CBRST, using World Health Organization criteria.
  4. Strengthening the capacities of the stakeholders: one of the major concerns of the TK holders is the fear of theft of their knowledge practices and systems. Stakeholders were trained on the value chain and protective processes, of GRs and associated TK, on the negotiations in the framework ABS (general information on negotiation skills), and on how the development of Bio-cultural Protocol process is being driven.

Output of activities

(a) Information, awareness of the stakeholders involved in the management of Gnanhouizoun and Gbevozoun sacred forests

More than 350 actors in all socio-professional categories were informed of and familiarized with the project activities. Actors had a good understanding of the project and their responsibilities in the project implementation. Fifteen different categories of actors were involved in the process: communal authorities, dignitaries, TK holders, local development associations, local press, youth associations, women associations, and international organizations. Traditional medicine practitioners and local farmers who voluntarily pledged to follow the process gathered together and formed within them a committee to promote the management and the valuation of GRs and associated TK. Many field visits by the staff of the project were organized with the dignitaries (Photo 1) to exchange precious information. To monitor the project activities, three local committees are put in place: 1) Access and Benefit-Sharing Committee; 2) Sustainable Forest Management Committee; and 3) facilitators group for the Bio-Cultural Protocol.

Photo 1: Field visit with dignitaries at Gnanhouizoun. Photo credit: Bienvenu BOSSOU

(b) Inventory the GRs, the TK associated with the GRs and the rules of access

With the support of TK holders (Photo 2) and the women’s association (Photo 3), information was collected on various plants used from the sacred forests. Information on the processes and techniques of the preparation of traditional medicine products was also collected from the women’s association. In the Gbevozoun sacred forest, 256 plants species were identified, of which 75 are encountered exclusively in the sacred forest. From the inventory, 191 plants out of the 256 are reportedly used for medicinal and nutritional purposes. Overall, 61 diseases or sicknesses could be treated with these plants. In the Gnahouizoun sacred forest, 168 plants species are identified. Of these, 81 species (48.21%) are encountered only in the sacred forest, and 110 species out of the 168 are used in medicinal and nutritional programs. There are 35 pathologies or sicknesses treated by medicines produced from these plants.

A directory of GRs and associated TK for each sacred forest was drafted. With regard to the Nagoya Protocol on ABS, this activity helped to:

  1. Draft the access mechanisms of the GRs;
  2. Facilitate discussion on the structures or persons responsible for the deliverance of access to GR;
  3. Analyze the adequacy of measures identified in connection with the guidelines of the Nagoya Protocol on ABS and to make appropriate proposals;

Photo 2: Gathering information on Genetic resources with traditional knowledge holders. Photo credit: Bienvenu BOSSOU

Photo 3: Women’s association processing medical plants. Photo credit: Bienvenu BOSSOU

(c) Valorization of GRs and TK

Through the memorandum of understanding for collaboration signed between IREMPT, the CBRST pharmacognosy laboratory, and the NGO CeSaReN, a total of 32 traditional drugs, developed on the basis of genetic resources and TK, underwent photochemical analysis, cellular and sub-chronic toxicity using rats, and microbiological assessments. The report was composed on each of the 32 traditional drugs. After these tests, 24 traditional drugs have proven effective and safe for use against those diseases for which they are traditionally used to treat.

Photo 4: Exhibition of some pharmacopeia products. Photo credit: Bienvenu BOSSOU

(d) Strengthening the capacities of the stakeholders

In terms of strengthening the capacities of the stakeholders, training sessions have taken place and financial agreements negotiated. Training sessions on GRs and the associated TK value chain and right protection processes were organized for the benefit of communities, managers of the sacred forest and TK holders, by experts. This helped to inform and strengthen the capacity of TK holders and sacred forests managers on the following:

  1. The concept of value chain in the context of the Nagoya Protocol on ABS;
  2. Criteria and procedures to select products to value through the value chain.
  3. Identification of actors and their functions;
  4. The assessment of the weight of transactions in the final cost of a product;
  5. The explanation of the circuit followed by a product;
  6. Understanding or pricing mechanisms, revenue, margins/profits and added value, and distribution of added value per link and for the whole sector;
  7. Highlighting the most recurring constraints and bottlenecks by genuine links and the entire chain;
  8. Description of the strengths and weaknesses, constraints and opportunities;

The various group sessions helped to strengthen the capacity of TK holders and managers of natural resources on the opportunities offered by the Nagoya Protocol for poverty reduction, sustainable use of the biological resources, and the role assigned to them in the implementation of the protocol. Local communities have understood that the Protocol fills a gap and that its implementation could contribute to a fair collaboration between traditional and modern medicine. However, reaching this level of collaboration requires long-term action.

Lessons learnt

The outcome of this project has highlighted relevant issues for consideration, by different actors and stakeholders involved in the efforts to revitalize socio-ecological landscapes, faced with natural and anthropogenic challenges.

  1. The Nagoya Protocol on access to GRs and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from their utilization can be applied to GRs and associated TK of sacred forests;
  2. There is heavy reliance of some populations on traditional medicine.
  3. The high exploitation of medicinal bioGRs could lead to an over exploitation of these resources and expose them to the risk of extinction (some of these species are already on the national red list (Neuenschwander et al., 2011)
  4. A partnership between TK holders and research institutions can promote the use of GRs


Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity 2011, Nagoya protocol on access to genetic resources and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from their utilization to the Convention on Biological Diversity, ISBN: 92-9225-306-9.

Lokossou AO 2012, Diachronic analysis and the role of sacred forests RAMSAR Site 1017 in the conservation of endangered plant species Master Thesis, University of Calavi, Benin.

International Tropical Timber Organization 2012, Study for the rehabilitation and sustainable management of sacred forests on Ramsar sites 1017 and 1018 in Benin PPD165/12 Rev.1 (F);

Cesaren 2015, Technical document for the capitalization of achievement of the project  N°: BEN/OP5/CORE/BD/13/04/CeSaReN;

Neuenschwander, P, Sinsin, B & Georgen G 2011 Protection de la nature en Afrique de l’Ouest : Une liste rouge pour pour le Bénin. Nature conservation in West Africa: Red list for Benin. ITTA, Ibadan, Nigeria