Benin is often regarded as the cradle of Voodoo, home to thousands of sacred forests, which believers say are vital to their religion which is rooted in nature.
In this forest in Bohouezoun Voodoo, priest Gilbert Kakpo carries out a ceremony.
Gatherings begin by dropping water on the ground, a ritual that pays respect to ancestors.
Initiation into Voodoo takes many years. And with few exceptions, only those initiated are allowed to enter the sacred forests.
Voodoo believers see the forests as homes to the spirits.
Priests pray to them and perform rituals to seek advice for their followers who may be facing hardships.
Kakpo says the religion is based on positive thoughts and deeds.
“In this place where we're standing, our divinity (spirit) is the protector of women. If you’re a woman who’s had miscarriages or has given birth to stillborn children and you come here for rituals, you’ll never endure those hardships again. If you have problems, such as witchcraft or spiritual attacks being put on you, then you can come for rituals. You buy all of the necessary items for the ceremonies or prayers and no matter what the problem is you’ll find the solution. If someone is a witch and comes into the forest, he or she will not survive because Voodoo deals with only positive and good things. I can't count the number of people who have been healed or treated here,” says Kakpo.
But for decades Benin’s forests have been threatened, at first by anti-Voodoo attacks and then the expansion of farming and urbanization, say locals, aid groups and Voodoo worshippers.
Fabric of society
Between 2005 and 2015, more than 20% of Benin’s forests decreased, with the rate of deforestation continuing at more than 2% a year, according to the World Bank.
As the government grapples with preserving the forests while developing the country, Voodoo worshippers worry the loss of its spaces could have far reaching effects.
They say it’s not just an environmental concern. Believers say it threatens the social fabric of Benin's 13 million people – approximately 11% of which practice Voodoo.
Worshippers say if the spirits are angered, they’ll inflict war, sickness and death on the population.
When residents in the village of Houeyogbe agreed to let the government destroy much of its forest to build roads and install electricity, locals say the spirits unleashed a plague, with inexplicable deaths and mounting illnesses. AP has not been able to verify this claim.
Bienvenu Bossou is executive director for the Circle for Safeguarding of Natural Resources.
Between 2001 and 2012 approximately 45% of Benin’s sacred forests had disappeared or were diminished, according to the local aid group.
The organization tries to preserve the woodlands, working with communities to demarcate boundaries, raise awareness about cutting down trees and teach people how to financially benefit from them through honey-making or snail farming.
Bossou says: "Agriculture is the main threat for the forests and that's due to poverty. As populations are poor, they can't afford to buy fertilizer, or gas for energy. From 2001 to 2012, we noticed that 14% of the sacred forests disappeared and 30% of the forests have been badly degraded, meaning that a huge part of their surface area decreased."
There was a sacred forest here called Aveleketezou, but it’s now covered by a gas station.
Some employees claim that when they filled cars with gas, it turned to water. Again, AP has not been able to verify this claim.
Some people blame the government's push for development as the main driver of the deforestation, with residents claiming roads are being built on sacred areas without consultation.
One of the world’s oldest religions, Voodoo originated in the kingdom of Dahomey — present-day Benin — and is rooted in animism, the belief that all things, from rocks and trees to animals and places, have a spirit.
Today, millions of people practice it, turning to Voodoo priests to perform rituals to ward off evil spirits, overcome illness and achieve professional and personal success.
The coast the Port of Ouidah has beautiful beaches, but in the 17th century this area was one of Africa’s busiest slave trading ports.
Ouidah is the epicenter of Voodoo in Benin.
While Benin is a majority Christian nation — comprising nearly half the population — Voodoo is embedded in most people’s lives, especially in the largely Christian south.
Dada Daagbo Hounon Hounan II is described by his followers as the World’s Supreme Spiritual Voodoo Chief.
He warns: "Human beings are sacred and inviolable and must be respected. Whoever destroys a human being destroys the environment. The consequences won’t impact only one person, but it will impact everyone in time and space."
The government says it’s doing what it can to protect the spaces.
It's banned cutting down trees without state approval and since 2016, the government has invested some $3 billion (USD) into the culture and tourism sectors, which it says will indirectly help the forests.