Blessings Of The Forest (BOTF) stands as an international social organization with a profound commitment to conserving and sustainably valorizing the natural and cultural heritage of the Indigenous Peoples of Gabon. The organization’s approach, deeply rooted in the principles of the Nagoya Protocol, showcases a holistic strategy starting with listening, understanding, and supporting the Gabonese people in their mission for preservation and international promotion of their unique resources.
Brief History of The Organization
In 2004, Yann Guignon, a French advocate for fair practices in North-South relations, discovered Gabon and the sacred plant Iboga during a technology implementation project. Immersed in the Gabonese culture, he encountered the initiation rite Bwiti, revolving around the sacred Iboga tree. Deeply moved by his experiences, Yann joined the French NGO “E-Boga,” dedicated to the sustainable promotion of Gabonese Traditional Medicine in the West. After two years within E-Boga, Yann journeyed to Gabon for a profound initiation into Bwiti, solidifying his commitment to bridging ancestral and modern sciences.
However, in 2007, France’s prohibition of iboga and the classification of Bwiti as a “Sectarian Aberration” forced NGOs, including E-Boga, to dissolve. Outraged by the ban, Yann returned to Gabon, initiating a video report and defending iboga’s cultural significance on national television. Two years later he permanently relocated to Gabon, establishing his consulting firm “Traits d’Union.” Collaborating with Professor Jean Noël Gassita, they compiled a vast international database on iboga. Supported by Sylvia Bongo Ondimba, the First Lady of Gabon, Yann’s work contributed to Gabon ratifying the Nagoya Protocol.
BOTF In More Recent Years
In 2012, Yann submitted a report, highlighting poaching issues, and received legal recognition from the Ministry of Culture for his work. A year later the report was adapted into an educational program, “Iboga – Ça s’explique,” broadcasted nationally to raise awareness. Yann’s advocacy reached international platforms as he exposed the unethical practices surrounding iboga at a conference in South Africa. He was named a “Guardian of the Tradition” by Master Atome Ribenga, reinforcing his commitment.
In 2015, Yann expanded his network to English-speaking circles, creating “Blessings Of The Forest” (BOTF) in the UK. Through collaborations, Yann attracted the support of David Nassim, leading to the establishment of BOTF CIC. During the following years, Blessing of The Forest gained attention from international donors and activists supporting the hard work of the organization, which redirected the villagers towards iboga cultivation, providing an alternative to unsustainable practices. Currently, BOTF is gaining visibility internationally, signing partnerships with many different organizations and investors.
The Mission of BOTF
BOTF’s mission is succinctly described as an international social organization dedicated to the conservation and sustainable promotion of the natural and cultural heritage of the Indigenous Peoples of Gabon, ultimately benefiting all of humanity.
The approach of the organization involves istening, understanding, and supporting the Gabonese people, aligned with the Nagoya Protocol. The organization comprises two legally constituted administrative and operational structures – a Community Interest Company (CIC) based in the UK for international fundraising and project management, and an NGO under Gabonese law for project implementation and direct relations with local communities and authorities.
What is Nagoya Protocol
The Nagoya Protocol is like a global agreement that focuses on access to genetic resources and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from their use under the United Nations (UN). This international agreement is a legally binding tool that sets rules for how access to and benefits from biological diversity should be shared.
It’s an extra part of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and acts as a legal framework to achieve the CBD’s goal of making sure benefits from using genetic resources are shared fairly. The Nagoya Protocol, adopted in October 2010 and in effect since October 2014, focuses on making the legal aspects and processes related to providing and using genetic resources clearer and more certain.
Blessings of The Forest Founding Spirits
In the heart of Gabon’s rich cultural tapestry, two remarkable individuals stand out as founding spirits of Blessings of the Forest, an organization dedicated to preserving the country’s ancestral rites, safeguarding medicinal plants like iboga, and ensuring the implementation of international agreements.
Maitre Atome Ribenga
Maitre Atome Ribenga, born Marcelin Eyéné Abaga (1940-2022), was not only a Master Initiator of the Dissumba Fang Bwiti Rite, known as “Biyeyem,” but also the President of the Traditional Bwiti Initiation Circle (CITRAB). Beyond his spiritual roles, Maitre Ribenga took on the challenge of destigmatizing Bwiti, engaging in televised debates that tackled misconceptions about this ancient mystico-spiritual practice.
In 2006, Maitre Ribenga initiated Yann Guignon into the Bwiti rite, marking the beginning of a significant partnership. Yann, under Maitre Ribenga’s guidance, participated in key Bwiti rites and was entrusted with the responsibility of preserving Gabon’s ancestral rites. Additionally, Maitre Ribenga charged Yann with the vital mission of safeguarding iboga from the interests of international pharmaceutical enterprises. The unwavering support and mentorship Maitre Ribenga provided to Yann formed the foundation of Blessings of the Forest.
Professor Jean Noël Gassita (1933-2022) was a trailblazer, holding a Doctorate in Pharmacology and Pharmacognosy. Notably, he became the first sub-Saharan African to be honored as an associate member of the Paris Academy of Medicine. Beyond academia, Prof. Gassita founded the Institute of Pharmacy and Traditional Medicine (IPHAMETRA) in Gabon and served as the Curator of the Raponda Walker Arboretum.
His collaboration with American researcher Howard Lotsof in 1987 significantly advanced the understanding of ibogaine’s potential. In 2009, Prof. Gassita formally adopted Yann Guignon, solidifying their partnership in the quest to assess the “State of Iboga in Gabon and Internationally.” This assessment played an important role in Gabon’s decision-making process regarding the Nagoya Protocol.
Prof. Gassita’s commitment to Blessings of the Forest was unwavering. He assumed the role of Honorary President upon the organization’s establishment in 2015, tirelessly championing its objectives until his passing in March 2022. His legacy lives on through Blessings of the Forest’s dedication to preserving iboga, safeguarding traditional knowledge, and upholding the principles of the Nagoya Protocol within the Gabonese Republic.
Blessing Of the Forest Featured on National Geographic
At the core of Blessings of the Forest’s mission is the initiation of a fair trade iboga program. Recognizing the critical need for a legal and sustainable alternative, the organization strives to address the ethical dilemmas associated with the iboga trade. The program, as outlined in the National Geographic piece, faces skepticism and challenges. The main question remains whether practitioners and clinics worldwide will shift towards supporting fair trade iboga or persist with the allure of cheaper, albeit poached, alternatives available online.
Blessings of the Forest’s efforts are aimed at establishing a legal and social framework, drawing inspiration from the Nagoya Protocol. This framework is designed to facilitate the export of iboga from Gabon, ensuring that benefits are shared, environmental considerations are upheld, and rural communities are supported.
The initiative receives international support from organizations like the Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund. However, skepticism exists, with some fearing that the legal framework might inadvertently create an iboga monopoly, controlled by a select few close to the ruling class of Gabon.
Amidst the challenges and uncertainties Blessings of the Forest can help in painting a vivid picture of a successful iboga harvest, where the economic benefits reach the grassroots level, providing a source of healing and economic improvement for impoverished rural regions while establishing a fair trade as a Gabon’s gift to the world.
Blessings Of The Forest exemplifies a holistic and community-driven approach to the preservation and sustainable valorization of Gabonese heritage. Through its commitment, BOTF not only safeguards the unique resources of Gabon but also envisions benefits for the global community, fostering a model of conservation that resonates with principles of equity and sustainability.