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Sacred Sites Help Conserve Threatened Podocarpus falcatus in
Sidama, Ethiopia
Zerihun D. Doffana, School of Anthropology & Conservation, University of Kent at Canterbury, UK
Biological and cultural diversity are inextricably linked, a fact captured in the concept of
Biocultural Diversity, whereby genes, species and habitats co-adapt with beliefs and
practices (5).
Sacred sites are considered showcases for conservation of biocultural diversity (7),
because their cultural importance derives from, and requires maintenance of, biodiversity.
How and why these sites are conserved in the face of increasing rates of economic,
cultural and environmental change is not well understood (5,6).
This research, therefore, examined explanations for the conservation of the threatened
yellowwood tree (Podocarpus falcatus) (3,4), in ancestral sacred sites of Sidama,
Ethiopia, a biocultural-diversity-rich country facing tremendous pressure on biological
and cultural diversity (2,3).
Qualitative-oriented PhD fieldwork (July 2012- June 2013) in seven localities in
Wonsho, Sidama, a Cushitic, dominantly Christian and peasant people of southwest
Methods employed include:
Inventories & surveys of sacred sites and trees to construct typology of sacred sites.
Interviews with informants and focus groups, from various backgrounds, about their
understanding of sacred sites, their threats and their explanations for their conservation.
Observations of how people use sacred sites.
Audio-visual documentation of practices associated with sacred sites and interviews.
Reviews of documents showing historical uses and current threats to sacred sites
Six types of sacred sites were identified where Podocarpus
falcatus was conserved:

1. Minneaalehaqqa: Sacred household front-yards
Places where usually a single individual is protected as a sacred
symbol (n=30).
Pic 2: An ancestral religion adherent at his sacred household front
yard with his sacrificial animals, Wonsho, Ethiopia, Nov 2012
2. Minnemoggu: Household graveyards
P. falcatus are protected as symbols of ancestors,
physical identifiers & live-fence demarcations (n=15).
Pic 3. A sacred ring of Podocarpus at a household
graveyard, Wonsho, Ethiopia, Nov 2012
3. Gudumale: Managed fields
Household or communal managed
fields, bearing sacred-trees, used as
ritual arenas.. (n=5)
Pic4. AGudumale, Wonsho, Ethiopia, Sept 2012
4. Luwaa
Sacred groves dominated by P. falcatus where
males camp out for rites of passage (n=2).
In one site about 75 such trees were counted.
5. Danawwa: Clan-wide sacred sites
Clan ancestral-head burial sites dominated by P. falcatus (n=5, 5 reported).
Protected by clan leaders.
Pic 5: A Cross section of Abbo
Wonsho sacred site, Sidama,
Ethiopia, 2012-2013
Rituals& institutions
Rituals are necessary to placate deceased ancestors and facilitate safe passage of people
through life stages.
They can be interpreted as also expressing and maintaining local identity.
Rituals have evolved in dynamic relationship with trees.
Maintaining these rituals is thus core to conservation of sites and trees.
Despite pressure from conversions to Christianity, Sidama people have maintained these
rituals and the underlying belief systems they reflect.
Trees ritual instrumentality
Maintenance of rituals requires spatial contexts where trees take central stage.
P. falcatus is a venerated totemic tree, personifying ancestors; it literally grows on and
from them in some locations.
Its presence symbolically represents continuity of ancestral traditions.

Rituals conservation instrumentality
Conduct of rituals is crucial instrument in conserving P. falcatus.
The ritual instrumentality of the trees has required their planting and maintenance.
Norm-violation is an affront to ancestral spirits, invoking their highly feared wraths.
The fear of ancestral spirits is instrumental in engendering tree-friendly attitudes and
Rituals require native trees such as P. falcatus for preserving the communitys
genealogical roots; expressing ethno-historical identity; and meeting other needs.
Sacred sites are spiritual-spatial contexts that are manifestly biocultural, and thus require
conservation of biological diversity.
P. falcatus owes its preservation to maintenance of ancestral rituals.
In sum, the maintenance of ancestral values motivates conservation, perhaps the starting
point for establishing community-protected areas beyond sacred sites.
1. Anderson, et al (2007). Conserving the Sacred Medicine Mountains Biodi. & Cons. Vol. 14, No.13; pp 3065-3091
2. Azene B. T. 2007.Useful trees and shrubs of Ethiopia.... World Agroforestry Centre, East Africa Region: Nairobi
3. Institute of Biodiversity Conservation 2009. CBD Ethiopias 4th Country Report. A. Ababa, Ethiopia
4. Legesse N. (2010). ASelection of Ethiopias Indigenous Trees A. Ababa: A.A.U. Press
5. Maffi, L.E. Woodley, 2010. Biocultural Diversity Conservation. AGlobal Source Book; London: Earthscan
6. Sponsel, L. E. (2012): Human Impacts on Diversity, Overview. Encyclopedia of Biodiversity. New York: Elsevier
7. Verschuuren, Bas et al. 2010.Sacred Natural Sites: Conserving Nature and Culture. London: Earthscan
PhD Scholarship grant by The Christensen Fund
Critical comments on the poster by Dr R. K. Puri (University of Kent, Canterbury).

Contact Information: Z. D. Doffana, PhD Candidate, DICE, University of Kent, Email:
Pic 1: Inventory at major
sacred site, with local
informants, Oct, 2012,
Wonsho, Ethiopia
Map 1: Study area: Sidama
Map 2. Study area: Wonsho district & selected localities
6. WonshoAbboGaa: Communal Forest
150 plant species were informally identified.
Wonsho-wide, all clan-inclusive sacred forest site, ca.
90.6 hectares.
P. falcatus is dominant along with other endangered
Threatsto P. falcatusandsacredsiteswerereportedandobservedto exist:
Increasing erosion of ancestral religious value system mainly due to expansion of
Protestant Christianity;
Livelihood pressures on sacred sites and trees as existing resource lags behind increasing
Influences of modern education, urbanization and socio-economic development

However, sacredsitesandP. falcatusarestill maintainedbecause:
Ancestral religion requiring them is resilient, both in its pure form and through adaptive
syncretism with other religions;
Sacred sites, trees and tree-based rituals are essential to placate ancestors and reinforce
local identities;
Successful attempts in recent years to counter denigration of ancestral rituals.