Indigenous Sacred Sites and Biocultural Diversity: A Case Study from Southwestern Ethiopia

Project Contributor: Desalegn Desissa

Credit: Desalegn Desissa

Community gathering in the Dorbo sacred pasture land to get blessing from indigenous religious leaders (sitting in the front row) Credit: Desalegn Desissa


Sacred lands in southwestern Ethiopia are in distress, due to the lack of respect for indigenous spirituality and the failure of the local government bodies to protect its indigenous peoples and their religious practices, as well as owing to pressures from tree cutting, cattle grazing, and forest encroachments. In response to these threats, a cultural movement is emerging at the grassroots level and among academic institutions and non-government organization whose focus is to recapture “whole indigenous landscapes” and their belief systems.


The Indigenous Gamo Peoples of Ethiopia have a long history of close association with nature, and their practices of worshipping nature continue today through the veneration of sacred sites (sacred natural forests, burial grounds, ponds, streams and other landscape features), which are the link between nature, culture and spiritual realms. Traditional religion is based on a system of taboos concerning the spirits that are believed to control the sacred sites. These traditional spiritual values have served to prevent people from over-exploiting certain areas. However, these customs and values are now changing because of the abandonment of traditional beliefs and the adoption of monotheism. The expansion of monotheistic religion and the appropriation of the venue of indigenous religion are worsening. The Ethiopian constitution grants the right of worship in any religion, but in practice this is not happening at the local level.

The project “A Collaborative Social and Biological Study with Gamo Elders of the Importance for Biocultural Diversity of Living Indigenous Sacred Sites in the Gamo Montagnard Region of Southwest Ethiopia” undertaken by the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society in collaboration with Gamo Elders, was designed to determine how indigenous sacred sites in the Gamo highlands maintain local biocultural diversity. Convincing the local government officials was the most challenging part of implementing the project. Most of them practice monotheistic religion and resisted the request of the research team to work with them on sacred site protection. However, after a series of discussions with concerned government officials, the work got underway.  To achieve the objective of minimizing the pressures on sacred sites and traditional beliefs, the project team has undertaken exhaustive field research and awareness raising. The team has categorized and mapped sacred sites that are still managed by the traditional custodians. In the first phase of the project, nearly 645 sacred sites were identified, described, and mapped. Of these, 272 are sacred forests ranging from 0.5 to 25ha, where over 792 plant species belonging to 149 families have been identified, including 19 endemic species and four species that are otherwise absent or rare in the rest of the region. The focus on the conservation potential of the traditional belief system is one way to convince both national governments and local communities of the value of local traditions.

The second phase of the project is a practical extension based on the findings from the first phase. To this effect, an organization, Friends of Gamo Gofa Sacred Sites Association, was established to give legal backing to the custodians of the sacred sites. The association consists of Gamo and Gofa indigenous intellectuals and aims to help custodians protect their sacred sites. The establishment of individual nursery sites in some communities to help restore degraded sacred forests has been successful. Awareness raising has been successful on many fronts, including seminars given to students and university staff on the importance of the culture and biodiversity of sacred sites, and workshop presentations given to decision makers on the importance of sacred sites for culture and biodiversity conservation. The workshop with decision makers allowed for networking and idea sharing among formal and grassroots opinion leaders, and for increased biocultural diversity awareness among decision makers. Another major success has been the support for people to undertake their ritual festivals. People have been gratified that their indigenous religion is coming out into the open after 30 years of suppression. The most touching comment in response to the festival came from a community elder: ‘Thank you for helping us to get back one of the most important parts of our culture which is our life. In our age the younger people do not respect ritual places and ritual materials, as a result the wrath of our ancestors came to our land which prevented us from getting good crops, milking cows and keep our children healthy.’  The elders and other community members have made a vow to protect their ritual places. Project success depends on the participation of ritual leaders, youth and community at large, so the project has been successful thus far. Since the end of 2007, the project has expanded further into the Gofa highlands, where the identification of sacred sites and mapping is currently underway. The project hopes to expand to more remote areas with more marginalized people.

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