A key aspect of Zanzibar’s historical heritage is the presence of numerous sacred natural sites: natural features such as caves and groves that are considered sacred according to Zanzibari cultural and spiritual traditions. There are marine sacred sites as well. The sites are cared for by families of custodians in the communities, who go to the sites to make offerings of food and drink and pray to the ancestors. Sacred sites thus provide a vital link to ancestral knowledge and values, and help promote social cohesion and well-being.
As community-protected places, subject to strict taboos on resource use, sacred sites also hold significant environmental values. Sacred groves harbor patches of mature biodiversity-rich forests in an otherwise degraded forest landscape, protect natural springs that provide dry-season water for people and livestock, and are important sources of medicinal plants and other forest resources. Sea-based sacred sites are sanctuaries for marine biodiversity.
Rapid social and economic change, however, is increasingly affecting both the cultural and the natural heritage of Zanzibar. Growing urbanization has meant that forests, including sacred groves, are under severe pressure for fuel wood and building material to feed urban demand. Considerable pressures also come from Zanzibar’s expanding tourism industry, with a proliferation of beach-based tourism establishments that impinge on sacred sites. As well, intergenerational social change, the influx of new immigrant populations, and exposure to cosmopolitan values through tourism have led to a loss of connection with cultural and spiritual traditions, especially among the younger generations, and thus to declining respect for the sites.
Many sites have been damaged by encroachment of tourists as well as by unauthorized resource extraction; several are now at serious risk. Sacred sites custodians see preserving these sites and the related oral traditions as crucial for maintaining their communities’ cultural identity and spirituality. However, they have been fighting an uphill battle in efforts to continue to protect the sites, as well as to safeguard the traditional knowledge about them and transmit it to the younger generations. In the words of the custodian of Shotele sacred cave, Hassan Ali Haji: “Things have changed a lot, and the protection of the sites is a challenge. Young people don’t respect the traditions; many of the big trees have been cut. Tourists come and dive in our caves and we don’t benefit in any way, and a road has been cut which makes it easy to reach the caves.”
At the same time, around the world there has been growing recognition that sacred natural sites represent nodes of biological and cultural resilience with great potential for biodiversity conservation and ecological restoration, as well as for the reaffirmation of cultural heritage. Indeed, sacred natural sites are increasingly seen as quintessential places of biocultural diversity. The Sacred Natural Sites Initiative (SNSI), an offshoot of the Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s World Commission on Protected Areas (IUCN WCPA), was set up specifically with a mission to support the custodians of sacred natural sites.
Locally, the Zanzibar Zoological Society (ZAZOSO) had been working with communities on natural resource conservation, including in sacred groves. ZAZOSO teamed up with SNSI to work on the protection of Zanzibar’s sacred sites and their biocultural values. A focus emerged on documenting key management issues important to Zanzibar’s sacred site custodian communities and recording the oral traditions related to these sites and to their cultural and spiritual significance, as told by custodians. That’s when, in 2012, Terralingua decided to join the effort.