‘God is my forest’ – Xhosa cultural values provide untapped opportunities for conservation

  • Michelle L. Cocks Institute for Social and Economic Research, Rhodes University, Grahamstown
  • Tony Dold Selmar Schonland Herbarium, Botany Department, Rhodes University, Grahamstown
  • Susi Vetter Botany Department, Rhodes University, Grahamstown
Keywords: bio-cultural diversity, conservation planning, environmental perceptions, identity, well-being


In South Africa conservation is still largely framed in terms of Western scientific values, with a focus on material benefits to local communities, whilst little is known about the intangible values local people attach to nature and biodiversity. We explored the cultural, spiritual and emotional relationships with nature expressed by Xhosa people, within the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany Hotspot, as well as the activities that mediate this relationship. A descriptive research approach was applied to document the emotions, meanings and values associated with landscape elements. This approach included group and individual interviews and ‘walk-in-the-woods’ interviews and participatory mapping exercises. Respondents portrayed a strong, although not always easily articulated, appreciation for nature, especially ihlathi lesiXhosa (‘Xhosa forest’, vegetation types within the Thicket Biome). Activities such as collecting fuelwood and other resources, hunting and time spent at initiation schools were described as key opportunities for spending time in nature. The benefits of being in nature were ascribed not only to the physical experience of the forest environment and its biota, but also to the presence of ancestral spirits. Being in nature thus contributes significantly to the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of local people, and is also integral to their sense of cultural identity. This study has made it clear that maintenance of biodiversity and natural vegetation is as much in the interest of the local community’s well-being as it is in the interest of conservation planners. We recommend that cultural values be incorporated into local conservation plans.


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