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This article examines the rehabilitation of an indigenous environmental ethic and indigenous environmental ethics in Africa. It seeks to provide an understanding of how the many culture-specific African societies view their relationship to the natural world. It aims to contribute to the articulation of environmental ethics grounded in indigenous traditions and inspired by broad ecological perspectives. The article begins with a survey of modern environmental ethics. It will then examine indigenous attitudes towards nature in Africa by focusing on the environmental ethics of the Oromo of Ethiopia. The Oromo constitute the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. The last part provides a general conclusion.
In this article, I use the terms 'indigenous' and 'traditional' (and sometimes 'local') interchangeably to connote something which was created and preserved by previous generations, and has been inherited wholly or partially and further developed by successive generations over the years. Indigenous knowledge is constantly evolving, and involves both old and new ideas and beliefs. The rural people do not slight imported values or stick solely to their ancestral customs. Instead, they have tried to improve their tradition in line with the new circumstances and thereby adapt foreign values to their way of life. Therefore, indigenous knowledge embodies both internally generated and externally borrowed and adapted knowledge. Indigenous knowledge tells us how people conserve trees, revere wild animals and transmit knowledge from one generation to another generation. The term 'an indigenous environmental ethic' is used to mean the set of values and beliefs of an individual or group of people relating to the environment. It involves individual or group attitudes towards the environment. Environmental ethics is the philosophical inquiry into the nature and justification of general claims relating to the environment. It is theory about appropriate concern for, values in and duties to the natural environment and about their application. It is concerned with what the people are committed to do about the natural environment.
Some people might debate whether there is such a thing as indigenous environmental ethics. However, the evidence at our disposal confirms that indigenous knowledge is not just a passing on of folk wisdom in a static way from one generation to the next. Peasant farmers and pastoralists do not passively follow the course of nature. Many peasant farmers and pastoralists critically and rationally evaluate the commonly accepted opinions and practices of their people and thereby develop their own independent views about society and the natural environment. When they are affected by what is going on in the society, they come up with quotable proverbs which originate from their reflective remarks and their thinking about nature. Their view of the value of the natural environment is based on reasoned thought. Accordingly, there are principles of thought (implicit or explicit) in various peasant farmers' and pastoralists' knowledge. It is on this basis that one can talk about indigenous environmental ethics (that is, indigenous theories concerning environmental values and duties) even though one should not claim that peasant farmers and other indigenous people as a whole have developed a system of indigenous environmental ethics. In fact, it would be unrealistic to argue that indigenous environmental ethics and modern environmental ethics have similar status and range of influence. Yet comparisons remain possible and instructive.
In this article, the term 'indigenous environmental ethics' is used sometimes to refer to the ethical views of philosophic sages who have their own independent views, and in most cases it is used as a plural (of 'environmental ethic') to refer to the norms and values of various indigenous peoples. This article aims to develop this idea and show how indigenous environmental knowledge is being rehabilitated in the contemporary world.
Before exploring the rehabilitation of indigenous environmental ethics, I briefly look at the central concerns of modern environmental ethics.
Modern environmental ethics
Although many western scholars have tried to show the value of the natural environment, Aldo Leopold's land ethic has had a considerable impact on the emergence of environmental ethics. He proposed an extension of ethics to cover the living systems of the earth (Leopold, 1966). He states that the land ethic affirms the right of different species to continued existence in a natural state. Human beings should change their role as conquerors of the land community and respect their fellow members, and also have respect for the community as such by becoming plain members and citizens of it. His land ethic thus 'simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively, the land' (1966: 219). Leopold extends moral concern to nonhuman animals. His emphasis is on biotic communities, which embraces many species. His environmental ethic is thus holistic rather than individualistic. He formulated the following moral maxim: '[a] thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise' (Leopold, 1966: 240). What should be remarked here is that as Vernon Pratt (with Jane Howarth and Emily Brady) has argued (2000), persuasively in my view, Leopold and other environmentalists have taken from ecology scientific support for the view that human beings belong to communities that involve all the animals and plants, and the habitats of those animals and plants living in a specific environment.
Although Leopold has enlarged ethics to include the rivers and the soils, as well as the fauna and flora, his vision is local. His land ethic did not address questions regarding global warming, or ozone holes, the population explosion, sustainable development, or the relationship between the rich developed nations and the poor developing ones (Rolston, 1999b: 131).
However, many philosophers were influenced by Leopold and began the environmental debate in the 1960s. Subsequently, philosophers have tried to bring the natural environment within the purview of ethics. Environmental ethics appeared as a distinct branch of ethics in the 1970s. Environmental ethics extends the scope of moral thought to involve all human beings, animals and the whole of nature, the biosphere, both now and beyond the imminent future including future generations (Pojman, 2000: vi). It deals with pollution, population control, resource use, food production and distribution, energy production and consumption, the preservation of the wilderness and of species diversity.
There are two main approaches in modern environmental ethics: human-based (anthropocentric) and non-anthropocentric. There are different strands of thought within the two approaches.
Human-based environmental ethics stresses that the natural environment does not have intrinsic (non-instrumental, non-derivative) value beyond human beings. In contrast to human-based ethics, non-anthropocentric ethics stresses that things other than human beings should be the proper subjects of moral concern as well as human welfare. It challenges the existing value categories and moral analysis. One group of non-anthropocentric environmental ethicists suggests that ethics should be extended to all living things. Others argue that environmental ethics should be concerned with the well-being of whole species than of individual specimens, with the integrity of biotic communities and the health of ecosystems.
Indigenous environmental ethics in Africa
Despite the fact that advances have been made through recent discourse on the environmental concern of non-western traditions, most of the related research has centred on Asia, Native American Indians, and Australian Aborigines, with little attention being paid to most of Africa. From 1979 to 2003, for instance, only one article that directly deals with Africa (Burnett and Kamuyu wa Kang'ethe, 1994) appeared in the journal Environmental Ethics, to be considered a forum for diverse interests and attitudes. Those who have studied non-western religions and philosophies (see, for instance, Hughes, 1983; Chung-ying Cheng, 1986; Deutsch, 1986; Rolston, 1987; Callicott, 1982, 1987; Hargrove, 1989; Ip, 1993; Patterson, 1994; Momaday, 1994; Marshall, 1995; Kwiatkowska-Szatscheider, 1997, Whitt et al., 2001; Callicott and Nelson, 2004 and others) have overlooked the contribution of Africa to environmental ethics. They either kept quiet or what they said about Africa was rather thin compared with what they said about Native Americans, Asians and Australian Aborigines. Eugene C. Hargrove, for instance, did not say anything about African traditions when he boldly asserted:
An open-minded comparative study of Eastern environmental attitudes and values will enable Western environmental philosophers better to recognize and criticise their most ingrained and otherwise unconscious assumptions inherited from the long and remarkably homogeneous history of Western thought. (Hargrove, 1989: xx; see also Rolston, 1987:174)
Similarly, it has been stated that there are …