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Opinions of Monday, 12 October 2015

Columnist: Cameron Duodu

Ghanaian traditions teach respect for the environment

Opinion Opinion

When I contemplate the devastation that we have allowed galamsey to wreak upon our environment, a cold shudder runs through my entire body.
How can a people whose ancestors almost literally worshipped the environment, grow up to become such dastardly wreckers of the very environment that sustains their ability to stay alive and remain prosperous?

But is it true that our ancestors really “almost literally worshiped their environment?” That’s fetishism, isn’t it? At best, it’s “animism” – that is, endowing inanimate objects, such as trees, rivers and streams, with spirits so that they could be made to satisfy the superstitious susceptibilities of a “primitive” people?

Well, fetishism and all that were the words used by the missionaries to describe the unusual respect for the environment that they found among our people. If the missionaries did not understand it, then it was fetishism – that was their general their policy.

Of course, some of the missionaries who came to this country during the colonial era were very sincere and did a splendid job in utilising their training to try and understand the mentality of the people they had been sent to “win for Christ”. These provided their “charges” with the best education they could pass on.

But the evidence exists that others were racist and regarded their mission amongst such a “primitive” people almost as a “penance” which could only be fulfilled when everything the despised, “primitive” people treasured, had been razed to the ground.

Take our trees, for example. Trees are the most important possession of forest dwellers because, of course, they are vital in providing not only oxygen to breathe but also, in regulating the flow of the clouds that fall back to earth as rain. Anyone who watches David Attenborough’s programmes entitled “AFRICA”, especially the episodes that touch on The Congo, The Cape, and The Future, will be amazed to find discover what an important role the forests play in ensuring the survival of Planet Earth:

Now, our people – especially their social leaders, such as chiefs and herbalists (almost every so-called “fetish priest” was a herbalist in reality) – had an instinctive understanding of the vital need to protect the environment. So they deliberately set out to clothe the most vital elements of their environment in mystical observances and rituals, so that the generality of the people would be afraid to break the rules and traditions evolved to protect the environment.

Days were designated to allow rivers and streams to recover from agricultural activity. Evidence? At Asiakwa, my home town, you couldn’t cross the River Twafuor on Thursday; and you weren’t allowed to cross the other River, Supong, on Sundays. You couldn’t fish in the smaller river, Twafuor, at all, because the fish in it were “sacred”. And, of course, you couldn’t fish in Supong on Sundays. (The missionaries defined these as “taboo days” and implied that they were only designated as the rivers’ sacred days out of superstition. Common sense – the fact that rivers and streams must be allowed time to regenerate themselves — was staring the missionaries in the face but they could not see it).

And now to trees – if a person wanted to cut down a particular tree (like Osese) used in carving cultural items such as stools and drums, he would have to go through a process of “apostrophising” the tree, so as not to be harmed when he cut it down.

As the “rituals” associated with “apostrophising” the tree were not common knowledge, only real professionals could cut down the tree, and it was thus preserved by being spared wanton destruction. Eventually, people became wary of cutting down any trees “by heart”, in case they cut down the wrong tree, such as one that possessed what anthropologists call a “numinous” or sacred quality.

Trees that were particularly “feared” and cherished included the aforementioned Osese (Botanical name: Holarrhena wulfsbergii) as well as Tweneboa [Kodua] (Cordia millenii). Other less feared but nevertheless respected trees were Onyina, Afromosia, Odum and Mahogany.

Unfortunately, some of these woods, especially Odum, Afromosia and Mahogany, so attracted the Europeans with their beauty that they were targeted for export by the British colonial administration. What they did was first to get the missionaries to open a frontal, philosophical attack on the idea of regarding “mere wood” as sacred objects.

Even the chiefs, who were supposed to be the custodians of the culture of their people, were bribed with the benefits arising from “indirect rule” (such as land royalties) to offer little resistance to this psychological assault in the traditions that protected trees.

The colonial government then set the seal to its effort to devastate Ghana’s forests by establishing a fearsome Forestry Department (mainly manned by staff drawn from the non-forest regions) to demarcate so-called “forest reserves” (known to our people by the rather more sinister name, “sofiya” line) to which access was denied to all except “timber contractors” licensed by the Government. It became widely known that if one crossed this sofiya line whilst worked in the forest and the uniformed sofiyas caught one, the punishment meted to one would be of an utmost brutal type. So people avoided the sofiya line like the plague!

By the time an indigenous Ghanaian Government took over power at independence in 1957, timber exports had been locked into the Ghana economy as a principal source of foreign exchange for the Government. Desirous of what it called “accelerated development” of the economy at all costs, the indigenous Government was not about to protect, for “sentimental reasons”, any “natural resources” capable of earning it revenue.

So, alas, before Ghanaians knew it, Odum Afromosia Mahogany and other precious species of hard-wood, had been felled to extinction in Ghana’s forests.
It is important to note that the destruction of the forests by excessive commercial lumbering has not only lost us these precious trees but also, changed Ghana’s weather pattern – and counting.

The length of the rainy season; unseasonal flooding through a reduction in the size of the forest cover; the destruction of the canopies of foliage that preserved Rivers and Streams from being dried out by direct sunlight; all these factors are either directly or indirectly connected to the destruction of our forests.

And now, as if all that was not enough, galamsey has descended on us like Armageddon to provide the coup de grace to our execution – by a self-appointed firing squad!
Our already ravaged rivers and streams are being turned upside down and inside out, by “To-to-to” machines imported from China, as the search for gold is carried out inside very riverbeds themselves, not just at the riverbanks!

Simultaneously, chain-saw operators are killing every young tree they can find, that can produce furniture or charcoal.
This is a combined, lethal assault on our environment that will reduce our children and their children’s children to denizens of a near-desert environment. Who will believe, then, that Akyem Abuakwa’s nickname is Kwae Bibirem? (The Dark Forest)?

When the full nature of what we have allowed to be done hits the coming generations, they will put their hands to their mouths, incredulous, and ask of us: ”But why were they so stupid as to allow this to have happened under their watch?”

“Under their watch!” What a good description of what is happening. We have fallen asleep and neglected the duties handed to us to perform, “under our watch”. I cannot answer the question of why we have allowed this to happen, for stupidity existed in the world before I was born. And it will continue to exist long after I have gone.

But one thing I can say is this: we the citizens of Ghana can still shake off our stupidity and realise that we have the right to protect our land and its environment. If the Government under whose “watch” our country is being turned into a potential desert won’t protect the land, our people must agitate for their local leaders to organise and equip them into land-defence units, that will chase the galamsey operators and the chain-saw gangs out of our ancestral homelands.

For there is no law that requires a people to acquiesce in their own collective suicide. And suicide it is – not just of this generation, but of the generations yet to come, which are forced to depend on us to ensure that there will be some land left worth living on, when we conclude “our watch” and they take their turn.

When our fathers concluded their “watch” they were able to hand us something worth caring for. What are we going to leave to our children, if we continue to be so stupid, uncaring and unworthy of the rich heritage that was bequeathed to us?
Every Ghanaian must answer that question for himself or herself.

In Brazil, Peru, Indonesia and other countries in a similar situation, environmentalists are up in arms, trying to protect their ancestral lands. In Ghana, however, we are asleep – the sleep the sleep of the living dead. We must say well done to ourselves!

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