Helene Tovitounhlan (40), standing in a bed of forest plants used in traditional healing in the village of Kotan. The forest garden is an initiative of the NGO GRABE Benin, (Groupe de Recherche et d'Action pour le Bien-Etre/ Research and Action Group for Well-Being), which uses a mix of the modern and the traditional to protect, preserve and rehabilitate forests. In addition supporting traditional protective belief structures, they educate communities on the importance of forests and the biodiversity within them, formalise their boundaries and instate legal recognition to prevent encroachment.
Historically, taboos around sacred forests where Vodoun (Voodoo) spirits or deities are believed to dwell, or where fetishes are found, had the effect of preserving forest ecosystems. However, the erosion of traditional values through modernisation, the growth of Christianity, population pressures, fuel wood demand and a period of government-mandated destruction have caused tremendous forest loss. A handful of grassroots NGOs are now reviving traditional beliefs and once again harnessing them to forest protection and expansion, alongside education about the importance of forests and the development of livelihood alternatives that reduce pressure on the natural environment.