Summary – A Call for Legal Recognition of Sacred Natural Sites and Territories, and their Customary Governance Systems
A new report aims to provide the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights with persuasive and substantive arguments relating to a core element of original African traditions, namely sacred natural sites and their customary governance systems. It calls for a decisive policy and legislative response.
Sacred natural sites are places of ecological, cultural and spiritual importance, embedded in ancestral lands. They are recognised as such by indigenous peoples around the world, and Africa is no exception. Furthermore, custodian communities of sacred natural sites and territories are the foundation of Africa’s identity and heritage, which is at the core of the vision of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
A Statement and Call to Action, by custodian communities from six African countries, forms the nucleus of the report. In their own collective voice, they describe rstly how they are determined to maintain and protect their ancestral traditions, sacred natural sites and territories and, secondly, why this is so important. The report provides a body of legal and policy support for the custodians’ statement, drawn both from the African Charter as well as from international and domestic law. It reminds us that the African Charter commits member states to respect and maintain plural legal systems, and recommends that African countries should recognise a priori legal systems as part of their commitment to a proud African identity, to better navigate
a development path where the integrity and heritage of the continent is maintained. Annexures provide practical examples
of custodian communities who have sought legal recognition for their sacred natural sites and territories and customary governance systems; relevant international and regional legal instruments; and statements by the African Commission, which support the objectives of the report.
Key points that emanate from the report are:
- Sacred natural sites and territories play a critical role in protecting biodiversity, essential for building climate change resilience for the ecosystems on which food systems depend.
- Custodian communities, who maintain customary governance systems to protect sacred natural sites and territories, play an essential role in preserving the traditional values of Africa, and require legal recognition and support to do so, given their growing vulnerability to increasing pressures from the different forms of land grabbing and extraction.
- Sacred natural sites and territories are the bedrock of customary governance systems, which are not able to ourish without legal protection.
- Recognition of customary governance systems as part of plural legal systems forms an essential component of respecting the essence of Africa, as set out in the African Charter.
- Sacred natural sites and territories should be recognised as no-go areas for mining and other destructive or extractive activities, in alignment with growing international recognition and threats.The report calls for the recognition of sacred natural sites and territories, and their customary governance systems. Since
the colonial era, sacred natural sites and territories have been systematically undermined and violated. With the continued expansion of industrial development and a renewed scramble for Africa’s ‘natural resources’ – land, mineral, metal and fossil fuel wealth – sacred natural sites and territories, and their custodian communities, are at the frontline. The African Commission is called on to invoke the African Charter in order to defend them against this onslaught.