Law, African Religion, and Environmentalism

Ikechukwu Anthony Kanu

Mazah Hills, Jos, Nigeria. Photo by Victor Salami Oyale (CC BY-SA 4.0).

In 2022, I was invited by Harvard Divinity School at Cambridge for a  conference titled “Ecological Spiritualities” to present my paper, on African eco-spirituality. While preparing the paper with a focus on the Indigenous experience, I carried out a survey which revealed that, although several multilateral agreements like the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, Cartagena Protocol on Biodiversity of 2000, and Stockholm Convention on Present Organic Pollutants of 2001 have been reached and laws promulgated at the international level to combat environmental degradation, most Indigenous people are not aware of the existence or the content of these multilateral agreements. 

Apart from not knowing about these multilateral agreements, there’s also an absent spiritual base to the agreements, making them difficult to conceptualize and communicate to the local people within categories that they can understand. The survey also revealed that the same Indigenous people who are not aware of these multilateral agreements and laws are well aware of their Indigenous taboos as they concern the preservation of the environment. 

The result of this survey draws attention to the conception of law among the Indigenous African people, and the force that animates adherence to it. This research introduces us to the relationship between law, African religion, and environmentalism. The law referred to here is the law of African taboos, and what brings African religion to the conversation is the spiritual dimension of taboos that gives them their power. Environmentalism comes into the conversation given that these taboos serve as guardians of the environment, therefore providing an intersection between law, religion, and environmentalism.

What are taboos?

“Taboo” is from the Polynesian word tapu, which means “sacred, consecrated…dangerous, uncanny, forbidden, and unclean.” It is similar to sacer in Greek, Kadesh in Hebrew, Nso in Igbo, and mmusu in Akan. Historically, it was a sacred term for a set of religious prohibitions instituted by traditional religious authorities as instruments for moral motivation, guidance, and objectivity for protecting the sanctity of their shrines and the well-being of their worshiping communities. Taboos are actions or behaviors that are forbidden for religious reasons or by social custom. Within the African context, taboos are Indigenous norms or local knowledge held by African Indigenous people for the guidance and moderation of the human attitude.

Three ethical modes of reasoning can be drawn from the understanding of African taboos: command, consequence, and character. Taboos act as commands and they draw their authority from ancestors. They are meant to give direction to society to achieve the common good. Since taboos are commands, the breaking of a command goes with consequences. The ethical notion of consequences reminds the African community that, while the commands are thought about, one must also think of the consequences of one’s actions. Those who keep the taboos are considered to be of good character. 

Philosopher John S. Mbiti describes the African people as notoriously religious, given that they carry their religion with them into every fabric of society. It is in this sense that the violation of taboos is often linked to the ontological order of the universe, as it can upset the relationship between God and man. 

Taboos are laws which over time were made by the ancestors and so to break them would attract punishment from the ancestors. Moreover, to violate a taboo among the Igbo is to depart from the norm (omenani) over which Ala, the earth goddess, presides. The introduction of God, the ancestors, and deities into the understanding of taboos establishes a connection between taboos and African religion.

The Convergence of African Taboos and Environmentalism

Despite other areas that African taboos address, they are principally known as the guardians of the environment. They are described thus because they moderate and guide the attitude of the African people toward the environment.  Some of these taboos include prohibiting hunting in particular forests; felling trees, like the Iroko tree; killing animals like owls, vultures, or snakes; hunting on specific market days; fishing on specific market days; visiting bodies of water on specific market days; taking more than one needs from nature; washing clothes inside a stream; setting bushes on fire; and urinating or defecating into bodies of water. The primary principle that underlies the African taboos’ prohibitions regarding the environment is justice. This is based on the understanding that the environment ought to be given the respect that it deserves. It should be treated not as a voiceless aspect of nature, but as one that inhabits great spirits. 

Alongside the idea of justice is that of sustainability. This principle extends justice into the future and ensures that the opportunities and livelihoods of future generations are not endangered. The sustainability of the environment requires that people do not take from nature more than is needed for survival or satisfaction of basic needs.

A third principle is that of sufficiency. It requires that people ought to share what they have and live more simply, think creatively, and ensure that everyone has access to the goods that they need to live a life of dignity. The idea of sufficiency requires that a person thinks of the good of others rather than thinking about only our needs.

The next principle is that of compassion, which comes from the African understanding of nature as a part of being human. This requires that the environment be treated with compassion. There is also the principle of solidarity. It is based on the African holistic understanding of nature as a community of living and non-living things. This principle invites the human person to relate with nature as a part of their worldhood. 

Concluding Thoughts

The African worldview is interconnected, interrelated, and complementary. It is within this context that there is a conversation about the intersection of African taboos, religion, and environmentalism. Taboos, as guardians of nature, help Africans to understand and relate to the environment within the categories that they understand. It is only within such a relationship that the project of environmental preservation becomes more productive. They protect the environment through the moral obligations that they impose on the human person. Because of the religious element, there is a promotion for understanding the environment in metaphysical terms. The environment is, therefore, not just a thing to be exploited but the abode of great spirits and ancestors to be respected and venerated. In this way, endangered species in the ecosystem are protected; and a sense of sustainability and justice in the use of the environment is realized.♦ 

Ikechukwu Anthony Kanu is a Professor of African Philosophy with the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Tansian University, Nigeria. He is also a Tenured Professor of African Theology and Orthodox Studies at the University of America, Temecula, California, USA.

Recommended Citation

Kanu, Ikechukwu Anthony. “Law, African Religion, and Environmentalism.” Canopy Forum, July 15, 2023.