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Religious Perspectives on Climate Change in the West Ivoirian Mountainous Region

With co-author Sadia Chérif in Veldman, Szasz, and Haluza-DeLay (eds.) How the World’s Religions Are Responding to Climate Change; Sept. 2013: 126-138

Climate change is one of the greatest environmental, social, and economic threats facing the planet today. It is already negatively impacting the livelihoods and living conditions of people in all developing countries. The farming regions of sub-Saharan Africa, where agriculture provides the main economy on which rural populations depend, are especially at risk as climate change causes unprecedented variability in rainfall and increases in temperatures (Handmer and Dovers 1999; Kurukulasuriya and Mendelsohn 2008; Christoplos et al. 2009). Agricultural yields are likely to decrease by as much as 50 per cent by 2020 in some West African countries that are already afflicted with pervasive poverty (Hoffmann 2011). If climate change is not addressed more effectively, its impacts will impede progress toward viable development in sub-Saharan Africa and will make it impossible to attain the United Nations Millennium Development Goals of ensuring environmental sustainability and ending poverty and hunger (2010). In sum, climate change poses a grave risk to survival, development, and international security (Nzuma et al. 2010).
      Climate change is experienced in different ways by farmers, who depend not only upon sufficient rain for their crops but upon predictable weather patterns in order to plan for planting and harvesting periods. However, recent unprecedented variability in the weather featuring irregular rainfall and rising mean temperatures has made farming even more challenging. Ultimately, it is expected that these changes will create extreme humanitarian crises (FAO 2009). Although organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007) have proposed strategies for addressing climate change, there are serious issues with these approaches. For one thing, they are expensive, especially given the fact that they are supposed to be implemented by farmers, who are quite poor. Secondly, they are written in ways that local, uneducated farmers have trouble understanding. Because of their inaccessibility to the indigenes of Zagoué in western Côte d’Ivoire, such approaches to dealing with climate change have proved ineffective so far. In order to work, strategies compatible with local ways of thinking and communicating about farming must be devised. Accordingly, we analyze local religious attitudes toward climate change using a phenomenological qualitative approach in order to determine how they might serve to inform a successful narrative addressing the rain scarcity there.

This study uses qualitative phenomenological research to analyze local environmental narratives by the mountainous farmers of western Côte d’Ivoire. This research design emphasizes individuals and their subjective experiences (Denzin and Lincoln 2000; Anadón 2006; Schütz 1932). The purpose is to arrive at an understanding of human social realities as they pertain to the environment and how these environmental perspectives are perceived by the social actors themselves (Poisson 1991). Data were collected by means of individual, focus group, and informal interviews using a semi-directive interview guide. However, to take into account the various agricultural seasons throughout the villages visited as well as temporal constraints, the strategy of data collection by focus groups was privileged. Social scientist Maribel Del Rio-Roberts (2009) suggests that focus groups are helpful when the topic of research concerns perceptions, opinions, and beliefs. For that reason, this investigative technique was chosen. Questions concerned mainly a comparison of the annual rainfall of 2010 with that of the last two previous decades. Other questions gave more latitude to the interviewees for expounding their views about the changes in temperatures and their negative effects on agriculture.
       The four main villages that compose the newly created municipality of Zagoué—Zagoué, Déoulé, Singouin, and Gouêtimba—were chosen for focus group sessions, one at each site. All four sessions and ten individual interviews were conducted in the local Goh language. Somewhat closely related to Toura or Wen, Goh is a variant of the Yacouba or Dan language, which is mainly spoken in the Department of Man in Western Côte d’Ivoire, where Zagoué is located (see fig. 1). It is a little known language, for the most part escaping the notice of historians of the region (e.g. Loucou 1984). The choice to collect data in the Goh language turned out to be a practical way of comprehending Clifford Geertz’s (1983) idea of “local knowledge,” which is constructed through communal events, symbols, and especially shared language.
      To complete this study, residence was taken up in Déoulé for five weeks. It is from this “headquarters” that the three other villages of Zagoué were visited to conduct focus groups and informal interviews. The usual strategy for this consisted of first an unofficial visit with the leader of the village, around whom were often gathered certain notables wanting to join the focus group. After an explanation of the object of the visit, a formal appointment generally was fixed for one of the rest days (Friday or Sunday) in the agricultural calendar to better enable participation.

Zagoué is located on a plateau in the 18 Mountains Region of Côte d’Ivoire, where the mostly rocky mountains reach a height of more than 100 meters, encircling the municipality. As such, Zagoué is subjected to a tropical climate with a long rainy season from March to October and a short dry season from November to February. Situated nine kilometers from the town of Man, Zagoué municipality’s population is composed primarily of rural farmers, notwithstanding the presence of modern infrastructure such as an elementary school, hospital, and electricity. It thus has a seasonal economy and residents who depend mainly on activities connected to agriculture.

Figure 1: 18 Mountains Region of Côte d’Ivoire where Zagoué is located


Rice cultivation
Rice is the primary crop in this area and represents an essential source of income for the farmers, in addition to coffee and cocoa. Rice has been grown in the municipality since becoming the post-colonial choice of the Ivoirian government, which launched in 1965 “a crusade for rice” in order to promote food sustainability for the region (Chauveau and Dozon 1981: 651).
Rice growing on mountain slopes begins with clearing the land, which takes place as soon as possible after the harvest period from November to December, followed by deforestation within thirty days. The removal of trees from the area to be cultivated is accomplished by burning, which is done once or twice, depending upon local factors such as amount of wood, advancing rainy season, and abundance of the first rains, three to five of which are needed to ensure the extinction of ashes. Rice cultivation has thus contributed to deforestation and, hence, climate change (Ehui and Hertel 1989).

Rural populations of Zagoué and their religious affiliations
Native farmers in the western mountainous region of Côte d’Ivoire have created traditional narratives to explain the climatic changes they are experiencing. Because these deviations are felt differently depending upon the micro region, explanations for it diverge from those given by climatologists. For example, Ivoirian farmers measure precipitation locally, whereas climatologists give measurements which tend to be regional or even national averages.
     Zagoué is unique in that the ancient religious traditions involving fetishes, sacred groves, and rituals have retained their purest forms, having been least influenced by foreign elements. For the Dan people of Zagoué, religious and ethnic identity relies on the ritual use of music and masks that reflect their animist tradition, known as ge. Ge represents a religion which allots a soul to animals, plants, phenomena, and natural objects, and for which all nature is animated by spirits called genu, the plural of ge. Genu are part of a pantheon of spirit intermediaries between God (Zlan) and humans. The spirits who manifest as genu originate in the wilderness—in certain mountains, trees, or streams (Reed 2001). In this way ge compares both etymologically and theoretically with ancient Greek paganism, with genu resembling the genius loci, or local spirits, who were thought to inhabit nature.
      Zagoué animists continue to believe that these protective spirits dwell in sacred forests and rivers as well as other revered places. They also conform to prohibitions such as not harming certain native species related to these sites. It is thought that propitiation to the protective spirits is necessary to counter problems like unproductive harvests, endemic diseases, and epidemics afflicting the local villages. Named lahi—“the water which allows life”—in Goh, these protective spirits are an expression of human dependence on the rain that facilitates agriculture, ensuring food security. By protecting their sacred places, animist peasants contribute to environmental conservation despite pressures from agriculture and population growth that would otherwise encroach upon or outright destroy them (Nyamweru and Sheridan 2008; Cormier-Salem and Bassett 2007).
     On the other hand, relying on traditional knowledge for climate change adaptation has proven problematic for the Zagoué traditionalists because alterations in temperatures and rainfall fall outside their previous experience. The narratives and rituals that once seemed to serve them well are no longer practical and may, in fact, be contributing to agricultural failure. In this situation, religious beliefs not only begin to lose efficacy, they lead to misattribution of the problem’s cause. Compounding this difficulty is that other developments in addition to climate change are disrupting the lives of the people in this region.

Discussion: Impediments to Climate Change Adaptation in Côte d’Ivoire
Population pressures
Climate change arrives at a time during which other historical processes have been working counter to Ivoirian ecological sustainability. For one, the burgeoning general population is adding considerable environmental stress as the need for food increases the need to farm more land. For the last thirty years, the province of Zagoué and other areas in western Côte d’Ivoire have been subjected to strong migrations from the North and South of the continent, where less accommodating climates make farming more difficult. Many have left their places of origin in hopes of improving their livelihoods, a migratory movement that seems to be a direct consequence of West Africa’s reputation, unlike much of Africa, for having a forest zone favorable to agriculture.
      As environmental pressures increase, property ownership is becoming more contentious, particularly regarding sacred sites. Anthropologists Celia Nyamweru and Michael Sheridan cite case studies indicating that today, “sacred ecological features are highly dynamic, deeply contested, and in rapid flux in African societies” due to competing interests (2008: 285). Even where sacred groves, taboos, and totems seem to be working to preserve habitats and species, as in Ghana, the young people are often disinterested in following the old traditions. Such “ecological, social, and symbolic dynamism has important implications for biodiversity conservation,” Nyamweru and Sheridan maintain (2008: 285). For, cultural traditions depend upon passage through generations to remain vital and relevant. Once a group loses its cultural traditions, it loses its “sacred ecology” (Berkes 1999). Moreover, because these sites provide “community self-identification as well as a legitimate expression of political power,” there is much debate about their treatment, which at least has slowed the process of their relentless destruction (Nyamweru and Sheridan 2008: 285). The dialogue, however, has yet to integrate a coherent, practical response to climate change.
     In addition to lack of interest by young people, the ge tradition has faced increasing challenges from outside religious groups like Islam that began infiltrating Côte d’Ivoire following the conquest of the nation’s western area by Samory Touré during the pre-colonial period. As a result of this, foreign immigration doubled, especially from the heavily Islamic countries of Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and Niger. This incursion of Muslims resulted in conversions to the extent that Islam is now the most dominant religion in Côte d’Ivoire (38.6 % of the population), followed by Christianity (32.8 %), indigenous (11.9 %), and none (16.7 %) (CIA 2011).
     Traditional spirituality has been tested even more since the appearance of Christianity in rural villages during the 1990s when evangelists opened Pentecostal churches throughout Africa. In Côte d’Ivoire, the process of evangelization and conversion actually began earlier, during the years 1980-90. This is when demand for spirituality increased as a response to the stress caused by governmental programs that intended economic reform through the privatization of business but, in fact, further impoverished the people (Kouadio Ahou 2008). Because religions function in part to provide solace in the face of unendurable hardship and suffering, churches proliferated. There now exist three religious belief systems in Zagoué: traditional animism, Islam, and Christianity. If attitudes toward nature are considered, however, there are only two religions, given that the animist religious precepts are respected by the Muslim community, with whom the animists are often aligned in opposition to Christianity.
      Villagers attribute this relative cohesion between practicing animists and Muslims to the successful integration of the latter. Unlike the Christians, Muslims generally do not resist or denigrate animist religious beliefs, but rather allow some degree of syncretism. In addition to their tolerance of animism, Muslims tend to be more accepted throughout West Africa because of Islam’s simplicity and its coincidence with certain African sociocultural features, including group solidarity, polygamy, and circumcision (Charnay 1980: 140). Additionally appealing is its ingrained respect for elders, hierarchies, morals, and rules. For these reasons, it is regarded now as an “African” religion, but this strong alliance between animism and Islam has contributed to the relatively poor acceptance of Christianity in the region.

Discord among religious groups
Disharmony between traditional and Christian communities has increased as rainfall has declined. These pressures have amplified traditionalist-Christian quarrels, which are on the rise in West Africa following the above described influx of immigrants from the North and South (Juhé-Beaulaton 2008; Cormier-Salem and Bassett 2007). According to one Zagoué villager, “since the arrival of the church in the village, women and children are no longer afraid of the masks. The rules and totems of the village are violated, and even the sacred forest says nothing to them.” This villager refers to the Christian denigration of animist belief in the sanctity of certain natural places and of customs like the mask ceremonies. Once intended to scare followers into submission to the spirits, the masks have lost their power after being mocked repeatedly by Christians.2
     In their investigation into the causes of the drought, native farmers point accusing fingers at the Christian community for not respecting the prohibitions and ancestral values honored by their tradition. It is believed that Christians profane the sacred forests by clearcutting them to install their plantations. One villager insisted the drought was due to the demolition of trees by Christians. He did not think that this was the only cause, however:
     We had sacred places here at the village, and when we made kola nut offerings it rained the same day. But today, certain villagers (main nou a main nou)3 seem to think that these sacred places are not important because, according to them, nothing sacred lives there. So they cut down trees there and build their farms. At the time when I speak, these sacred places are exposed to the sun. Angry, the spirits (Yi nan) which lived in these sacred places have left them (An toho am’ma lo ho). Also invisible, like God and therefore gods as well, these spirits are angry with us, and consequently, the rain does not fall any more.
     The above comments demonstrate how traditionalists find it easier to blame Christian desecration of their sacred places for the drought than to take responsibility for finding an effective response to it. Following this line of thought, another villager also holds Christians liable for the decline in rainfall at Zagoué:

For me, the lack of rain is related to disrespect for the taboos of the village. For example, in our family, it is forbidden to eat certain foods, or totems (Gba pon hon), but modernized Christians consume them. Ultimately, the lack of rain is related to the disrespect by Christians for the village totems and taboos.

The speaker above points out that not only places are considered sacred; certain species are as well. Both commenters express beliefs about the sanctity of nature that iterate those held by many indigenous cultures, including the ancient Greek pagans, Aboriginal Australians, and American Indians. They also observe that for the local Christians, nature is not sacred. Indeed, the desanctification of nature by fundamentalist Christians like the Ivoirian Pentecostalists has been noted in several studies, and some have linked this attitude to anti-environmentalism (e.g. Gottlieb 2006; Bloch 1998; Eckberg and Blocker 1996; Wolkomir et al. 1997).
      The practice of questioning longstanding sacred traditions and transgressing them has become so common in Zagoué that certain rituals are being progressively abandoned by the Dan community. As with the above referenced mask ceremonies, the ritual of requesting rain, practiced mainly by women when the dry season is prolonged, has been challenged by Christians. This ritual consists of a festive procession around the village by women holding kitchen utensils that they beat together while chanting: “You, who caught the rain, if you eat what comes from the kitchen utensils, die.” This chant is directed to the “raincatchers”—individuals living among them who are believed to be trapping the rain and keeping it from the farmers and their crops—with the intention of frightening them into allowing the rain to fall.
      Recently, however, the women who devote themselves to the above ancestral practice feel mocked by Christians, who retort that only the Single God is able to bring rain to the village. According to one:

Christianity recognized that it is God who makes fall the rain. It is God who allows the rain to come down from the sky towards the ground. The name lahi given to the rain corroborates my words since this concept means the “water which saves humanity and all that exists on ground.” In other words, the creator of the rain is God only; rain does not depend on sacred rivers or forests, but is quite simply from God. Indeed, at the time when God created Adam and Eve at the beginning of humanity, there did not exist at that time any sacred places. Consequently, the drought is related to the fact that men no longer obey the rules of God or the Bible.

The speaker above is among those Pentecostalists of the region who argue that precipitation decline is a sign announcing the end of world. The reduction in rainfall; the drop in the agricultural outputs; the weak cloud cover, even during rainy season; the lack of water for crops at the end of the cycle; the destruction of harvests; and the displacement of the sowing periods are, inter alia, the principal signs which announce the Apocalypse. Today, the scarcity of rain is viewed by the Pentecostalists as the realization of God’s prophecy, as revealed in the biblical Book of Revelations (Apoc. 15-16).
     One local Christian convert told how he came to reject the traditional animist beliefs by first occupying then building a plantation in a sacred forest:

The place where I made my farm was regarded as a sacred forest. Indeed, it was known in the village that the spirits attacked any person who ventured there to clear this piece made of ‘bad’ grass known under the name of Dépendant. Indeed, in this zone existed insects that attacked all men who entered. Of course, these insects attacked men everywhere, even in the non-sacred places such as plantations and farms. But I faced these insects and installed my cocoa plantation there. My success shows that sacred places and spirits do not exist.

The above comments describe the rationale used to disprove traditional beliefs: if the insects bite outside as well as inside sacred forests, then such places cannot be sacred. Other informants reported, and it was confirmed by local Christians, that some of them from the village caught and ate fish from the sacred rivers, which is traditionally taboo. In addition, many Christians by their own accounts deny the mystic power of the rainmaker of Ganlié, a hamlet near Zagoué recognized by villagers to contain a “rainmaker” and “sunmaker” family. The rainmaker is solicited by animist peasants to make the rain return, but local Christians delight in pointing out that the traditional sacrifices and propitiations “demonstrate that they are not at all masters of the rain.” In fact, they agree with the man who told participants of his focus group that the only condition to ensure high precipitation would be conversion of all villagers to Christianity: “It is necessary that all the assembly joined together here accept this God as Creator of humanity. It is only under this condition that the rain will start falling abundantly again as it used to do several decades ago.”
     From the above it may be seen that the combination of population increase and religious belief systems lacking an ecological ethic has led to increased exploitation of natural resources, including what were once sacred forests, rivers, and species. Within this context, the local manifestations of climate change constitute an added stressor to an agricultural system and a traditional relationship to the land that have already been subjected to disruptive forces. In other words, climate change is creating conditions different from those under which, in times past, agricultural activity succeeded. This means the groves are no longer protected by the genu, the rainmaker no longer creates rain, and the mask processions no longer enforce traditional beliefs. Rather than recognizing the internal problems of their narratives, however, the traditionalists choose to assign blame to those who do not share their beliefs—the Pentacostalists. By the same token, the Pentacostalists fault nonbelievers for crop failures that signify the coming Apocalypse. From a western scientific point of view, just as both religions have their own explanations for the ways they experience climate change, both misperceive the cause of the changes they see as the “wrong” beliefs and the blasphemous behavior of the other.
     Within this context, a communal, ecological, mythic-religious narrative that embeds a reproduction ethic seems imperative. Nor should such an ecoethical narrative be outside the realm of possibility for the Dan, as it seems to be for the Pentecostalists. Indigenous religions have shown themselves to be quite flexible and adaptable (Olupona 2011: 792). Because they are mainly oral, native traditions easily lend themselves to ongoing revisioning. In this way, they may be thought of as “alive” and constantly changing. African religions in particular represent “an ongoing creative dynamic” and have proved resilient and readily adaptable to other places and cultures (Grillo 2011: 806). Indeed, a coalition of African Independent Churches (AIC) and traditional African religions has been working to repair the drought-stricken landscape of southern Zimbabwe (Daneel 2005). AIC “are all-African churches founded by Africans for Africans” that have emerged in sub-Saharan countries and represent a majority of African Christians in Zimbabwe and South Africa (Daneel 2006: 537, emphasis original). By galvanizing the local peasants to defend their ancestral lands, the coalition has acted to reverse ecological failure. As a response to the despoliation of their sacred places, they have planted over 8 million trees, raised ecological awareness, and applied religious sanctions against harmful wildlife and water practices (Daneel 2005).
     The above ecumenical effort to activate for what religions historian Roger Gottlieb calls “religious environmentalism” demonstrates how widely disparate religions can cooperate for a common cause (2006: 118). Religious environmentalism is “rooted in tradition and a creative transformation called forth to meet the demands of the environmental crisis” (2006: 119). This metamorphosis is demonstrated by the traditional Zimbabweans above, whose practices, like those of the Ivoirian Dan, worked well for them until the pressures of “population, profit-oriented deforestation, overuse of water for commercial farms, soil erosion, and a decade-long drought created something profoundly new” (2006: 119). In other words, traditional belief conserved sacred forests only until the above stressors became so intense that the peasants felt forced to act or lose everything. Out of the tension arose a transformation of Zimbabwe’s “age-old religio-ecological values into a modern programme of environmental reform” (Daneel 2001: 104). Mwari—once a rain god—became a “god of ecology”; and although formerly appeased by the “observance of taboos against taking certain game or felling sacred trees,” the “spirit ancestors” now demanded that everyone “heal the land, reforest the earth, and protect the water” (Gottlieb 2006: 119). For one member of the African Association of Earthkeeping Churches, Mwari has been revisioned as God and will be cared for by the congregants “‘because in Jesus Christ you [Mwari] are one with us’” (cited in Daneel 2001: 185). This syncretism of Christian and Zimbabwean traditions signals the prospect for a similar rapprochement in Zagoué.

In most West African countries like Côte d’Ivoire, agriculture remains the key economic and social factor and is of pivotal importance for assuring food security. However, climate change and overpopulation are irreversibly damaging the natural resource base on which agriculture depends. At the same time, local peasants of the municipality of Zagoué relate competing religious narratives on the drought, which many interpret as resulting from disrespectful religious practices. While Christians allot the lack of rain to the anger of a vengeful God, local animists believe that it represents retaliation by protective spirits for the desanctification of their sacred species, forests, and rivers by Christians.
      In fact, none of the religious responses to climate change in Zagoué has been ultimately effective: the drought continues, endangering food supply and the future of its people. Rather than bickering and pointing fingers at each other, it would seem more productive for religious and secular groups to become better educated regarding the causes of climate change and how best to respond to it. However, a major obstacle to this process, besides cost, is the lack of a shared language among Ivoirians, who speak numerous native dialects in addition to Goh. Perhaps more significantly, they also lack a common religious perspective. Without a collective ethos, change seems unlikely. For one thing, fundamentalist Christian sects like the Pentacostalists seem so resolutely attached to literalist, anti-environmental interpretations of the Bible that they have become resistant to accepting alternate, greener readings. As a result, Pentecostalists cling to the belief that the global ecocrisis is pre-ordained by God as punishment against nonbelievers, which supports their unwillingness to address the realities of climate change.
      Ecotheologist Bernard D. Zaleha proposes “Christian pantheism” as a response to the anti-environmentalism of fundamentalist sects. Christianity is revisioned accordingly to be “genuinely faithful to the teachings of Jesus,” meaning it “will have nothing to do with a blind faith in an atoning death of an incarnate God through which we attain some blissful state in a hereafter” (2006: 2). In this way, Christian pantheism eschews biblical literalism for a metaphorical reading that sees through to the underlying messages behind the visible text. Zaleha argues that the view of life and nature as profane allows Christian fundamentalists to disregard the environment. By reinterpreting Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan as a call “not to turn away, as we are doing, from a dying Mother Earth,” Zaleha reimagines a resanctified nature (3). Like the Unitarian Universalists, who have revisioned Protestant Christianity by deemphasizing the figure of Jesus and focusing on his teachings, Zaleha’s Christian pantheism re-creates it as a more ecoethical tradition. The problem is that Pentecostalists have been slow if not utterly resistant to embracing the concept of Christian pantheism.
      Indeed, Pentecostalists are among the most anti-environmental of all religious groups, according to several studies. Social scientists Nalini Tarakeshwar et al. (2001) found that Protestant fundamentalists were among the least ecoethical, backing up similar results from Douglas Lee Eckberg and T. Jean Blocker (1996) and Michelle Wolkomir et al. (1997). According to Wolkomir et al. (1997: 343) and Jeanne Kay (1989: 228), conservative Protestant Christians—who are identified as Mormons, Southern Baptists, the Church of Nazarene and Pentecostal Holiness congregants, Seventh Day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses—display the most literalist but least environmentally concerned views. These findings support the results of Eckberg and Blocker, who determined that “high sectarianism,” or belief in a literal, dominionist interpretation of the Bible in which nature is desanctified, corresponded with the lowest “greenness” (1996: 348). This seeming incapacity of Pentacostalists to find a common ground for communication with the animist Dan or any community makes it unlikely that they might create a mutually agreeable means of addressing their environmental problems. On the other hand, the African Earthkeeping Churches discussed above illustrate that Christian sects are, in fact, capable of revisioning themselves with ecoethical perspectives.
      The above supports the findings of Tarakeshwar et al., who “identified specific religious and/or spiritual beliefs (i.e., beliefs that nature is sacred) that were predictive of pro-environmental beliefs and behaviors” in the U. S. (2001: 401-02). Such beliefs would seem to be critical for the development of effective responses to climate change. Their results specifically suggest that belief in sacred places seems to promote place attachment, which is the main referent for defining indigenous peoples. Dan narratives about their sacred places therefore help them to establish identity—both collectively and individually. Indeed, indigenous place narratives have resulted in a body of “folk” knowledge which demonstrates that “many indigenous groups have practiced the basic principles of sustained yield, interrelationships, and balance for thousands of years” (Hibbard et al. 2008: 143). In addition to protecting habitats and species, the prohibitions associated with Dan sacred places thus have served to preserve, at least until recently, their cultural identity, showing what it means to be indigenous.
      Traditional African sacred place narratives may be seen, therefore, as repositories of Geertz’s “local knowledge” (1983), or “traditional ecological knowledge” (TEK), defined by environmental anthropologist Fikret Berkes as “a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment” (1999: 8). As such, TEK inspires “an ethic of nondominant, respectful human-nature relationship, a sacred ecology; [shapes] environmental perception; [gives] meaning to observations of the environment; [and provides] a fundamental lesson . . . that worldviews do matter” (1999: 163, 14, 182). Berkes consequently believes that indigenous, relational epistemologies can and should inform environmental ethics. By learning from native peoples, it is possible to develop “an alternative view of ecosystems [as] pulsating with life and spirit, incorporating people who belong to that land and who have a relationship of peaceful coexistence with other beings” (1999: 182). In other words, TEK, like the belief in sanctified nature, is an element of a group’s ethos as expressed in its traditional narratives. It would seem prudent, therefore, to include indigenous perspectives in any dialogue about attitudes toward climate change.
      However, climate change is not the only threat facing the West African environment. Skyrocketing population numbers have added considerable stress to Ivoirian natural resources. Agricultural economists Simeon K. Ehui and Thomas W. Hertel claim that the main impetus behind the clearing not only of the traditional sacred groves but all West African tropical forests is pressure from agriculture, which is “fueled by rapid population growth” (1989: 703). As a result, many nations are challenged by “how to feed an increasing population without irreparably damaging the natural resource base on which agricultural production depends” (703). As of 1989, Côte d’Ivoire, at five per cent per year, had attained the fastest agricultural growth rate in sub-Saharan Africa, and its original 16 million hectares of tropical rain forest had been reduced by 3.4 million hectares (703). Although the rate of deforestation has slowed, thanks to conservation efforts by the government, remaining rainforest is now estimated to be at only 10 million hectares (Mongabay 2006). Besides the irreparable loss of trees, deforestation also deleteriously affects crop yields by making the land nonarable (Ehui and Hertel 1989: 703). A sensible remedy would thus seem to be curbing the population growth that is applying extreme pressure to the environment.
     Of course, curbing population growth is easier said than done, for to speak of fertility is necessarily to address the pervasive poverty in Africa. In their investigation into the relationship between the implementation of rural development programs and fertility rates in Côte d’Ivoire, social scientists Aka Kouamé et al. (2002) found that attitudes and behavior favor smaller families in rural communities with established development programs over places with none (272). In other words, “fertility and desired family size are lower, and contraceptive practice is higher” in communities with these programs than in those without (272). They theorize that this correlation occurs because the development programs have a positive effect on income levels: “When incomes rise above the subsistence level, they bring about the social and economic changes that are necessary for fertility decline through changes in life styles and consumption patterns” (274). With higher incomes, parents are able to consider opportunities for their children that increase the costs of raising them, which in turn is motivation for fewer children. This positive correlation does not always extend, however, to “variables relative to agricultural techniques and fertility measures” (290). That is because some agricultural techniques require larger families for maximum productivity. Thus, although policies that work to increase incomes seem to help decrease rural Ivoirian fertility, this result is in part offset by agricultural techniques that are associated with higher fertility. From this it may be concluded that policy alone is insufficient to alter effectively Ivoirian reproduction attitudes.
     It seems clear from the above that a revisioning of the current, dysfunctional discourse into communally accepted, ecoethical narratives is imperative if West Africans are to successfully address their looming ecological and humanitarian catastrophe. Along this line of thought, environmental philosopher J. Baird Callicott suggests that indigenous environmental ethics “can be revived and, just as important, validated by their affinity with the most exciting new ideas in contemporary science” (1995: 12). This possibility leads Callicott to imagine an environmental ethic ecologically based and “expressed in the cognitive lingua franca of contemporary science” (12). Consonant with this he imagines the revitalization of a “multiplicity of traditional cultural environmental ethics, resonant with such an international, scientifically grounded environmental ethic and helping to articulate it” (12). This means having an ecoethical worldview expressing the current reality that humans occupy one planet, are one species, and are facing a common, worldwide environmental crisis. Concomitantly, it means revisioning traditional worldviews to express the diversity of the human species inhabiting various bioregions apprehended through a variety of cultures. As in Hinduism, where there is multiplicity in oneness and vice-versa, Callicott believes that “this one and these many are not at odds[:] Each of the many worldviews and associated environmental ethics can be a facet of an emerging global environmental consciousness, expressed in the vernacular of a particular and local cultural tradition” (12). Callicott thus posits a “postmodern scientific worldview and its associated environmental ethic [as a] tie that may bind the many cultural worlds into one systemic whole” (12). He is saying that in order to successfully address the ecocrisis, of which climate change is but one element, we need a shift in the collective consciousness toward a more environmentally ethical attitude.
      In addition to the above call for a “global environmental consciousness,” Callicott says that finding an ecoethic “consonant with African experience and ideas is a dire necessity” (1995: 158). This is because Africa’s population explosion has led to civil war and the ruin of arable land, both of which have created pervasive famine. Callicott cautions, however, that foisting western concepts of population control via “sex education and birth-control technology is naïve” (159). Fertility is conditioned by sociocultural forces like religion, all of which must be faced before contraceptive technology is accepted. In other words, a reproduction ethic, like religion, is an element of a community’s worldview, and cannot be dictated by policy. It must be embedded in a communal mythic narrative. Callicott’s argument is supported by recent research indicating that although Côte d’Ivoire’s birth rate has gone down during the past decade following the introduction of western methods of birth control, it is still unsustainable. In fact, some of the decrease in Ivoirian fertility (and mortality) rates has been attributed not to better family planning but to disease, especially AIDS. It seems clear, therefore, that current approaches to birth control are insufficient to curb population growth in Cote d’Ivoire, which at 2.078 per cent in 2011 remains among the highest in the world (CIA). Moreover, when immigration is figured in, the growth rate nearly doubles to 3.8 % (Bureau of African Affairs 2010).
Contributing to the problem of overpopulation is that except for modern Buddhism and Australian Aboriginal traditions, no extant religions cohere with a reproduction ethic (Coward 1995: 14). This is apparently because until relatively recently, high fertility rates have always been compensated by high mortality rates; an embedded reproduction ethic simply was not needed (Caldwell and Caldwell 2003). Although Africa’s mortality rate is higher than the rest of the world’s, it is still too low to offset its rapidly increasing fertility rate. These social complexities suggest that adapting to climate change in Africa will not be successfully achieved with political discourse alone.
On the other hand, religious traditions can and do form attitudes towards the environment and fertility practices, says religion historian Harold Coward (1997: 261). Any analysis of reproduction and ecology practices, however, raises the question of “who is the ethical agent—the decision-maker” (265). For western cultures it is the “‘I-Self,’” but “traditional cultures tend to give ethical agents a collective identity—a ‘We-Self’—which extends outward in varying degrees of inclusiveness from family, caste, and tribe to an embrace of animals, plants, and inorganic matter—earth, air, and water” (265-66). Such interconnectedness suggests that traditional cultures may have a greater propensity for acting with ethical agency than might western cultures. It is this predilection that bodes well for revisioning indigenous narratives as ecoethical perspectives on reproduction.
     Accordingly, religion historian Catherine Keller says that what is needed is a global “spirituality of chosenness” that discourages giving birth to more than what communities or individual families can both nourish and cherish (1995: 116). In other words, a new religious narrative is required that recognizes the human component of environmental sustainability—one that encourages ethical treatment of the environment and each other and is felt to be right, as opposed to preaching what is right. In the end, this will be the only way to adapt effectively to climate change and to ensure sustainability of resources and species not only in Côte d’Ivoire but throughout the world.

1. Figure 1 by Greg Greenberg, used with permission.
2. Historian E.S.D. Fomin concurs in saying that although the “effect of Christianity on land use in [Western Cameroon] has not been wholly negative[,] the disrespect for those cultural practices that they deemed inimical to Christian practice affected the sacred forests in the region negatively. Many ardent Christian converts today have very little sympathy for royal sacred forests” (2008: 404).
3. A Goh phrase that means “undesirable persons,” alluding to Christians.

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  1. Dyan says:

    I don’t drop many comments, however I read a few of the responses on Religious Perspectives on Climate Change in the West Ivoirian Mountainous Region Greenshadow Productions.
    I actually do have a couple of questions for
    you if it’s okay. Could it be only me or does it look
    like like a few of these responses come across like they are coming from brain dead visitors?

    😛 And, if you are posting on other online sites, I would like to follow you.
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