Religious Institutions and Conservation Efforts in Africa

Photo from PUP Global Heritage Consortium

With the epidemic of HIV/AIDS ongoing in the continent of Africa for the past century, many initiatives have been made in effort to combat this dire health concern. Backing many of these efforts have been religious institutions, in which they have played a pivotal and successful role in establishing prevention programs, raising awareness about its implications, and advocating for safe medical procedures. However, a more recent topic is emerging amongst African scholars as the forefront: conservation biology. Can religious leaders step up and play a similar role in raising awareness about climate change?

In order to delve into this issue further, I interviewed Dr. Stephen Awoyemi.

Dr. Stephen Awoyemi is the co-founder and former president of the Religion and Conservation Biology Working Group, Society for Conservation Biology. His work is focused on how culture and religion shape behavior towards nature. He holds a PhD in Environmental Sciences and Policy from the Central European University, Vienna, Austria and an MPhil in Conservation Leadership from the University of Cambridge. He is currently the chair of the University of Cambridge Conservation Leadership Alumni Network Council.

Q1: To what extent can religious institutions have an effect on the daily lives of African people? 

Religious institutions command a mass following in Africa. And an overwhelming majority of Africans regulate their behavior based on their faith beliefs sanctioned by religious leaders and institutions.  Many Africans base their decisions about marriage, childbirth, response to adversity, careers and more based on their religious faith. Mainstream religions are particularly potent in Africa where incumbent beliefs from traditional religion already generate the notion that illness, ill luck or death are not by chance but caused by an otherness such as ancestral spirits, witches, and evil spirits. 

Q2: What role have religious institutions in Africa played in the epidemic of HIV/AIDS?

Throughout the past few decades, religious institutions in Africa have emphasized and prioritized social action targeted at alleviating human suffering. This is not surprising given that Abrahamic faith traditions, which are the mainstream religions in Africa, have humans as the crown of creation. This could be one reason African religious institutions have seen a scourge like HIV/ AIDS as a priority. One can find in the 90’s a case study example of how religious leaders played a critical role in the success of HIV/AIDS prevention activities in Senegal (UNAIDS 1999). Studies such as Vigliotti et al. (2020), in their paper in PLOS ONE, have discovered that church members’ encouragement of persons to do an HIV test was significantly greater than encouragement from family members and friends. It was also found that further exposure to religious preaching on HIV and its stigma more likely influenced people to do an HIV test.

Q3: What role do you believe religious institutions can have in promoting conservation biology?

Religious institutions have enormous potential to influence the cause of conservation of life on Earth. Scientists and religious scholars such as those at the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology have been saying this for decades. Some faith-based conservation organizations like A Rocha International use faith-based principles to inspire their conservation work and have been doing so for years. Additionally, the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Science is another group invested in this bridging of religion and conservation. I believe that religious institutions can inspire a conversation ethic based on their scriptures for the benefit of their adherents. However, barriers remain (though not insurmountable) which are an overly emphasis on the afterlife by some religious groups with little or no responsibility for the present state of the Earth, which, according to many scriptural references, is doomed for destruction. My proposal for religious adherents of this type is to quote Jeremiah 12:5 (NLT) of Christian scriptures.

“If racing against mere men makes you tired, how will you race against horses? If you stumble and fall on open ground, what will you do in the thickets near the Jordan?”

Jeremiah 12:5 (NLT)

Which is to say: the problems of today are an opportunity for religious institutions to build inner fortitude, new resources and personal power to meet the challenges of tomorrow. These endowments cannot just be bestowed; they must be earned. The afterlife, if there is one, cannot be equal to one’s present reality in the way one engages the new reality: that is, the afterlife. In other words, you cannot give what you have already done. If you have not been proper stewards of God’s creation in this present world, who will entrust you with the treasures of the world to come?

Q4: Do you see any similarities regarding this issue of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and climate change?

Yes. Both crises majorly arise from behavioral problems and religion is a primary regulator of human behavior in many parts of Africa with potential to redress these existential crises.

Q5: What are some challenges or obstacles religious leaders might face when trying to promote conservation for the earth?

I suspect very little, if any. Religious leaders wield power and influence in the continent and the role of stewardship of God’s creation is a core tenet of scriptural messages.

Q6: Can this be said for the whole of Africa, or is it more particular to different regions?

Yes, the whole of Africa I believe.

By: Stephanie Moon