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Perceptions of ecosystem services: A comparison between sacred and non-sacred forests in central Benin (West Africa)

Identification and assessment of the influence of socio-cultural beliefs in the perception of ecosystem services values are increasingly important for the management of forest resources. In this paper, we present a comparative study of local perceptions of the diversity of ecosystem services, values and priorities between communities living near sacred and non-sacred forests. This study revealed 21 ecosystem services related to sacred and non-sacred forests, grouped under four categories: provisioning (n = 6), regulating (n = 7), supporting (n = 2) and cultural (n = 6) services. Local populations living near the sacred forest (Kikélé Sacred Forest) identified the non-material benefits of ecosystem services such as spiritual inspiration and religious values as more important compared to populations living around the non-sacred forest (Pénessoulou Forest Reserve). In communities near the sacred forest, similar perceptions of spiritual values of the forest were observed among young and old, and between those with and without formal education, suggesting a strong transmission between socio-demographic strata of cultural values related to the forest. However, a greater importance was given by young and formally educated community members in the provisioning services of non-sacred forests. Forest management under traditional rules and harboring voodoo, a traditional religion in Benin, could explain forest ecosystem perceptions, with higher valuation of non-material ecosystem services in comparison to those of people living in the vicinity of forests without voodoo. Our study highlights the challenges of ecosystem service valuation at the sacred and non-sacred forest interface and shows the importance of integrating traditional beliefs in forest ecosystem management strategies.

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