Gilles Dufrénot : gilles.dufrenot[at]sciencespo-aix.fr
Kiyotaka Sato : sato[at]ynu.ac.jp
This study examines whether culture, and in particular religion, exert an independent causal effect on ecological outcomes. I focus on African Traditional Religions (ATR) whose cosmology reveres forests as a key sacred symbol and rely on the unique case of Benin where ATR adherence is freely reported. Estimates obtained using instrumental variables, exploiting the variation in proximity to the Nigerian border, and a spatial regression discontinuity design using the historical boundaries of the Kingdom of Dahomey reveal that higher adherence to ATR is associated with a positive five year average annual change in forest cover. I show that there is no evidence for this positive relationship due to the supernatural punishment hypothesis but rather the presence of a set of attitudes that reflect "spirit of sustainability". Motivated by the empirical evidence, I build a mean-field game model, where the density of the aggregate forest cover is constantly affected by the decisions of a continuum of agents and vice versa. In my framework the adherence to ATR implies the association to a greater spiritual value to forest resources and hence reduces the utility associated with forest consumption. The model shows how potential scarcity of natural resources can define both individual and aggregate decisions, and how the collective characteristics of religious beliefs can be key drivers of forest conservation.