Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
thesis_access.pdf (3.72 MB)

Traditional Institutions' Management of Sacred Forests in Tanzania: History, Narratives, and Evidence from Njombe Region, 1880s-2019

Download (3.72 MB)
posted on 2021-12-08, 19:54 authored by Edward Mgaya

Forest management entails interdependence between nature and society at different levels and systems. In Africa, one example of the interdependence of nature and society is ‘sacred forests,’ groves of trees with special religious importance to a people’s culture. In Tanzania, sacred forests are comparatively small in area, scattered over the entire country, and primarily managed by local village lineages, or kinship groups. In these communities, the close interaction in a small-scale society acts as a monitoring and sanctioning device. The patches of sacred forests have historically been managed as part of local tradition. Their management demonstrates Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), the linkages between biodiversity and cosmology, and the intersection between the social and the natural sciences.  Scholars of traditional forestry in Tanzania have for decades compared sacred woodlands with the state- or private-owned forests. Comparing these different forest management systems cultivated a ‘relic stance’ in much of the scholarship regarding sacred groves. The predominant tone of sacred forest scholarship has been to describe sacred landscapes as static communal sites without exploring their associated constitutive dynamics. In such an interpretation, sacred forests have been regarded as remnants of the primordial past, a frozen view of these fragments of woodlands. Studying sacred groves without considering the institutions that uphold them is problematic, as it assumes traditional institutions have continued to be stagnant, interacting with sacred forests in the same way throughout time. This thesis studies traditional institutions’ management of sacred forests by the Bena people of Njombe, southwest Tanzania, 1880s–2019. The Bena are a largely unstudied group. The study uses a qualitative, mixed-method research approach, including interviews in Swahili and Bena, documentary evidence from the Tanzania National Archives, anthropological reports, participant observation, and online documentaries. In applying a mixed-method approach, the thesis bridges history, anthropology, ethnography, and ecology to study forest management as an ongoing process of interdependence between nature and society. Rather than exclusively looking at the sacred forests as geographic locations, this study underscores their socio-ecological aspect and asserts traditional institutions’ dynamics as a key in explaining their history in Njombe. Thus, the thesis not only foregrounds the existence of such patches of forests in Njombe but also unpacks the institutional, cultural politics to reveal the contestations and appropriations around the symbolic, cultural, economic, and ecological value of sacred sites among the Bena community. By using a knowledge-practice-belief complex systems lens, this thesis expands beyond simplistic narratives of inertness, to focus on historical, cultural, economic, and political dynamics that are internal and external to communities that have often helped sustain sacred groves’ traditions or contributed to their degradation. The thesis argues that the Bena sacred forests are embedded in a cultural matrix which is very different from the socio-cultural, economic, political, and ecological landscapes from which they evolved. While managing sacred forests was traditionally an integral part of cultural systems designed to sustain livelihoods and spiritual well-being of the community, the relationship between the land and culture has shifted dramatically within different historical periods, altering the steadiness of the sites. In pre-colonial Njombe, chiefs and elders controlled the use of natural resources, but the relationships of the inhabitants to the forests changed with shifting social and environmental conditions. During German and British colonial rule, differences in perception of the landscape defined the contest over sacred forests between the indigenous people and the foreigners. The materially driven world has increasingly necessitated redefinition of sacred landscapes in post-colonial Njombe. The meanings attributed to sacred forests, derived from traditional Bena cosmology and which drive current conservation policies, have changed, and adapted to new circumstances. The shift represents the flexibility and evolution of local institutions and ecological knowledge, which illustrates the power of fluid, dynamic local communities. The change also emphasises the divergent approach of current conservation programs, which view sacred forests as static and contained.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Ecology and Biodiversity

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Alternative Language


Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Behrendt, Steve; Linklater, Wayne