Open Journal of Philosophy
2013. Vol.3, No.2, 345-350
Published Online May 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 345
The Forest in African Traditional Thought and Practice:
An Ecophilosophical Discourse
Mark Omoro vie Ikeke
Department of Religious Studies and Philosop hy, Delta State University, Abraka, Nigeria
Received January 14th, 2013; revised February 16th, 2013; accepted February 28th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Mark Omorovie Ikeke. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons
Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
In traditional African thought which is still prevalent in many places in Africa, despite the onslaught of
globalization and the attendant consequences of colonialism, the forest is held and revered to be a sacred
entity and in most cases the habitation of supra-human forces. Apart from clearing for cultivation and
human residence, the forest was generally preserved and protected from endangerment. Today, in most
places especially in urban Africa this is no longer the case. A colonialist ideology that commoditises the
forest has taken root and some no longer see anything wrong in wanton destruction of forest land and
degradation of forests. This work uses a critical method to interpret the African concept of the forest,
propose reclaiming aspects of the African concept of the forest. The work finds and concludes that there
are viable gems in the African heritage that can help to combat climate change and the environmental cri-
Keywords: Africa; Forest; Traditional Thoughts; Ecophilosophy; Environmental Crisis
A key area of the environment is forest. Forests hold great
value in every local community and in the global world. With-
out forests, trees, shrubs, and other plants, which are part of
every forest, the only thing you will see before you when you
look ahead of you will be bare sand, stones, mountains, and a
natural landscape without the beauty of forests and trees. A
landscape without forests will greatly harm human health as
one of the essential elements that take carbon dioxide from the
atmosphere and produces oxygen for human survival is lacking.
The forests are not only important to human life, but also im-
portant for the survival of other non-human lives and species
that depend on the forest environment for survival and flour-
ishing. The forests should be looked upon not simply for its
utilitarian value but for its intrinsic ontological value. The for-
est has value in itself, not simply because of its value for human
persons. In African metaphysical ontology, the intrinsic value
of the forests is rooted in its pantheistic-psychic foundation,
which implies that the divine active force and spirit of the crea-
tor pervade all creation. It is this that gives value to all things,
not simply on their utility.
The prime task of this work is to critically appraise the un-
derstanding of the forest in traditional African ontology. In
order to do this properly, it is important to clarify and analyze
some basic concepts such as forests, African traditional thought
and practices, and ecophilosophical.
Conceptual Clarifications and Analyses
The Websters Dictionary of the English language (2004)
defines forest as “a large area of land covered with trees and
brush growing thickly” (p. 358). Though there can be a small
forest, merely having some trees scattered or even in one loca-
tion does not make a forest. The trees should be generally
spread over a large area and covering the land or soil. For The
Chambers Dictionary (1994), a forest is a “large uncultivated
tract of land covered with trees and undergrowth” (p. 654).
Invariably a forest can only be found on land or swampy
ground as in a mangrove forest. With regard to Africa which
has a tropical rain forest, its forest as Anizoba (2005) indicates
it is in the low latitudes with heavy and regular rainfall and high
temperatures. The African forest is filled with thousands of
species ranging from trees, shrubs, parasites, animals, humans,
other living organisms, and a rich landscape. The forest is sig-
nificantly valuable for Africa as other regions that have forests.
Forest provides food resources, wood for various human pro-
jects, habitation for humans and other animals, recreation,
regulate temperature, help ameliorate climate change, and pre-
vent erosion. Besides its economic importance, pharmaceutical
relevance, and the great sociocultural significance that it holds
for indigenous peoples, Murck (2005) shows that forest pro-
vides environmental services such as stabilizing the soil, re-
plenishing the soil’s nutrients, helps in the hydrologic cycle,
holding humidity, harboring extensive reserve of biodiversity,
and regulating climate change.
On its own and as a word, ecophilosophical is derived from
the short form of ecology, eco, and the adjectival form of the
word philosophy, philosophical. Ecology as defined by Black-
burn (2005) is “the science which investigates the interacting
systems of biological organisms” (p. 109). This interacting
system of biological organisms is what is technically called
ecosystem. Ecology in a sense is the study of ecosystems. For
the avoidance of doubt, Rajagopalan (2011) notes that: “an
ecosystem is a community of living organisms (population of
species) interacting with one another and with its non-living
physical and chemical environment. “The interactions are such
as to perpetuate the community and to retain a large degree of
stability under varying conditions” (p. 23). It is important to
note here that ecology is a science though the findings and data
from that scientific field could be reflected upon by disciplines
in the humanities and other fields, for from the perspective of
inter-disciplinarity no discipline should be totally cut off from
other disciplines. Emphasizing the scientific nature of ecology
is highlighted by Mackenzie, Ball, & Virdee (1998) when they
argue that:
Ecology is a purely scientific discipline which aims to
understand the relationships between organisms and their
wider environment. Like any science, the outcome of
ecological studies does not dictate ethical or political ac-
tions. It is important to make this distinction because the
environmental movement has endowed the word ecology
with political connotations. It is right that ecology should
inform politics, but as a student of ecology it is imperative
to consider ecological research from rigorous scientific
viewpoint (p. 4).
The findings of ecological research have implications for
every other field of human study such as philosophy. It is the
methods and processes of applying critical thinking in a rational
manner to the issues of ecology or interactions of all life forms
and other elements in the environment that is considered eco-
philosophical. Ecophilosophical is the philosophy of ecology,
philosophy being understood as critical reflection on being; and
other realities in the cosmos. It probes into the “whyness” and
essence of things and in its ethical form proposes norms of
behavior in relationship with all other realities. Appiah (2003)
opines that the root of philosophy is “to give a general and sys-
tematic account of our thought and experience, one that is de-
veloped critically, in the light of evidence and argument” (p.
378). Philosophy is interested in raising and probing into the
difficult questions and perplexities of things that other disci-
plines normally do not ask. With regard to ecophilosophy, this
is done with the aim of moving beyond mere scientific data
about ecosystems to prescribing ethical ideas on what ought to
be human relationship with ecosystems in order to accentuate a
sustainable planet.
The ecophilosophical perspective taken in this work is to in-
dicate that the aim here is not simply to do ethnophilosophy or
merely narrate African traditional beliefs on forests. African
traditional ideas and beliefs about the forest essentially before it
became diluted with colonial and contemporary ideas about
forests are the concern here. Traditional thought is not totally
stagnant, but essentially before it was impacted by colonial and
western forces it was to a certain degree homogenous within
that particular cultural community as it has come through con-
sensus or tested experience. Cultural beliefs about the forests
were not half-hazard or irrational. They come from indigenous
pragmatic experience of the environment. They may not make
sense to a modern scientific mind but they helped people to
navigate through their natural and cultural world. It is important
then to appraise and evaluate African idea of the forest, inter-
rogating it in a critical manner, with the goal of proposing that
all in traditional thought about the forests is not obsolete or
decadent. There are ideas that could be mined from traditional
thought that can help in ameliorating the ecological crisis, while
being sensitive to the hostile and perverse aspects of traditional
thoughts. Those aspects such as patriarchy, slavery, female
genital mutilation, etc need to be confronted. For instance there
are forests in Africa that women were not permitted to enter,
whereas males even those of a younger age than such women
are permitted to enter. There are trees or fruits that women are
not permitted to touch or to harvest, but men are allowed to
touch them. Those who died mysterious and shameful death,
even when it is not their faults could only be buried in the so-
called evil forest. In traditional times twin babies were thrown
into the evil forest. In order to get healing cream or life elixir
young men were sent on dangerous and difficult journeys into
distant forests, just to save the life of the son of the king or
great elder. This same privilege was not accorded to ordinary
members of the community. The children of people who were
not part of royalty could die and it really did not matter.
These points are mentioned to show that there is no romanti-
cization of every African idea about the forest. Yet in the midst
of these limitations there were also ideas about the forest that
helped in environmental protection.
The Forest in African Traditional Thought
The African understanding of the forest cannot be separated
from the African cosmological view of reality. Life is seen as
one integrated bond and interrelated web. There is no pure and
absolute dualism in the African worldview. All life-spirits,
humans, animals, plants, trees, oceans, rocks, etc come from
God. They depend on the creator God for their existence and
sustenance. In the African understanding all life is infused by
the active and dynamic life force of the creator. The Malawian
scholar Sindima (1990) is right to opine that African perception
of the cosmos is life-centered; life is the essential characteristic
of the universe, a universe in which all beings are inter-con-
nected. This idea is corroborated by Ehusani (1991), when he
affirms the reality that the African sees the universe as one in
which humans are at the center, that the universe is pervaded by
a sacred mystical order that should not be unduly disturbed.
The sustaining presence of God keeps all things in being. Fer-
guson (2010) expresses this wisdom of Africa thus: “the uni-
verse is viewed as God’s creation and is filled with the divine
presence” (p. 29). Using the Yoruba culture as an example,
Maguire (2000) citing Jacob Olupona states that African culture
is ecologically friendly for all plants, animals, and human per-
sons are carriers of the same divine energy and kinship, one
Though all life is infused by the vital life force that does not
imply all life is homogenous. The African world was framed in
a hierarchy of being; a hierarchy which can be misused and
misapplied to promote patriarchy, sexism, and other oppressive
evils prevalent in some places in Africa. The hierarchy should
be seen as that of mutualism and commensalism. In the hierar-
chy each entity was there to enhance and enrich the other. Hu-
man persons were to use the elements of creation to moderately
sustain themselves while at the same time conserve them. Hu-
man persons were to tap the higher forces above them to
strengthen their life force through religious rites and rituals.
The trees, plants, animals, and other organisms which make
up the forest were infused with spirits. In Africa, the forest is
not simply the trees. It is inclusive of all that inhibits and lives
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
in the forest. In the piece, Creation in African Thought (n.d) the
author affirms rightly that:
To many African peoples trees and forests had special sig-
nificance. The Ngombe live in very dense forest and refer
to God as: “The everlasting One of the forest”, “the One
who clears the forest”, “the One who began the forest”,
while a number of peoples set aside sacred groves for sac-
rifices, offerings or prayers … A number of peoples
feared the spirits of the forest and of the water … From
several parts of Africa come accounts of trees which re-
fused to be moved, even by modern machinery designed
for the task. These trees are believed to have magical
That is why the discussion on forest management and other
uses of the forest should not simply be limited to economic
concerns. The wellbeing and concerns of the humans, and other
non-human elements in the forest should be taken into consid-
eration. The forest should be looked to not only for its wood
and timber provision, but also for how it can be preserved to
promote all life and the sustainability of the ecosystems. This is
why what happens to medicinal plants, other organisms, biodi-
versity in the process of harvesting for wood should be taken
into consideration .
In traditional times, African people lived and dwelled in the
midst of the forest. The forest like mother earth was seen as a
source of life. African people respected and reverenced the
plants in the forest, for as Burnham (2000) puts it, the plants
were the “most spiritual and mysterious of all life forms” (p.
35). In great historical saga and epics, brave African warriors
had to travel through seven hills and rivers in search of a life
water or cream that would bring deliverance and salvation to
their troubled communities or to save the royal lineage. Down
in the heart of the forest was the paradise that held the “tree of
life.” Only the courageous could venture to the heart of para-
dise. Surrounding the forest of paradise were many other forests
in which African people lived their lives and these forests were
accessible to all in the community.
This shows that there were different types of forests in Africa.
All forest did not carry the same homogenous power. The same
forest may have different areas that were perceived with dif-
ferent imaginations. In some forests there were places that were
accessible to all; beyond a certain place it was accessible only
to the chief priest or medicine man. Some forests were consid-
ered to be evil forests for they were inhabited by malevolent
forces and people who died mysterious or untimely death were
thrown into them. Evil forests as well as forests that carried the
charm of life or life elixir where special sacred religious rituals
were performed were generally preserved and were not to be
destroyed. Not far away from African villages and towns were
sacred groves inhabited by sacred trees and abode of ancestral
guardian spirits. These groves were centers of biodiversity.
Sacred groves as other forms of forest were inhabited by vari-
ous animals, plants species and organisms. African hunters
rarely carried their hunting to the above named forests. The
view in some quarters that see African forests either as ho-
mogenous or undifferentiated is not tenable. It runs against the
experience of this author who grew up in an African rural set-
ting and is still experiencing African rural life.
The spirits that permeate or possess forests or trees are not
the same. Some forests are possessed by good spirits while
some are possessed with evil spirits. Adogbo (2000) discussing
the spirit world of African peoples argues that:
The Urhobo believe that the forest groves in the area are
the homes of various kinds of land-spirits. The spirits in
the forests may be classified into two categories, viz, pri-
mordial and malignant spirits. The primordial spirits are
the ones so created by God, while the malignant spirits are
the souls of victims of irregular deaths, such as drowning,
suicide, death as a result of thunder, small-pox, and death
during pregnancy or during child-birth. The corpses of
victims of these irregular deaths are not accorded the
normal funeral rites and, therefore, cannot join the ances-
tors in the spirit world, called erivwin (p. 114).
Adogbo (2000) argues further that:
The malignant spirits … also inhabit the forest groves in
Urhoboland. These are spirits of irregular deaths which
are not accorded the appropriate funeral rites. They are
buried in bad-bush called awharode in urhobo language.
No farming is done in the awharode and they are avoided,
especially on Urhobo sacred day called Edewo. The peo-
ple believe that the spirits manifest more on Edewo. As a
result, important rituals, such as the burial of males,
communal redressive rituals and assemblies of igbe ad-
herents, are preformed on this day of the native week of
four days (p. 116).
What all these testify to is the reality that the African forest is
not homogenous. The term, awharode means a bush or forest
that is higher or bigger. Though it is possessed by evil spirits
they are considered to carry higher energy and force. As for the
good forests inhabited by good spirits, they were to be used
with care and prudence and human persons are not to engage in
wanton destruction of the forests. As for the forest inhabited by
malignant spirits, they were to be totally left uninhabited, un-
cultivated and wild. The only thing that can be done in them is
to use them as the burial place of persons who died in a myste-
rious manner. While a data-driven scientific mindset may dis-
agree with this classification of forests, and argue that they are
based on superstitions, the reality remains that the forests that
were left untouched continued to play their vital ecological role
in adverting climate change, deforestation, soil erosion, and
degradation of the landscape.
Peterson (2009) has revealed that the use of the forest among
forest-dwellers in central Africa moved beyond utilitarian pur-
poses as they had a mutual relationship with the forest. They
were able to innovate in the midst of change and natural disas-
ter. They knew how to adjust their lives to the changing pat-
terns of the forest. He writes that:
If one year the forests gives only a little of the preferred
asali honey, they know where to look for the less sweet
but also good apiso. If hunting proves poor in one locale,
switching camp to a new area was not difficult. In other
words, nature and humans interrelate with some degree of
flexibility and slack. Unlike western biocentrists who tend
to view humans as victims under the heavy hand of nature
as taskmasters, Central Africans see nature as offering
them some freedom of choice rather forcing their fate
upon them. The experience of Central Africans provide us
with a lesson. It affirms that although we cannot do with
nature whatever we please, neither does nature leave us
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 347
freedomless. Instead there exist the opportunity and...the
responsibility for us to play a creative role in shaping the
future of the natural and social evolutionary process. We
are co-creators, not sim p ly victims of natural deterministic
forces (p. 172).
While it is true that you can speak of an African worldview
for most African cultures have a lot in common, it is also true
that they have some peculiarities. The beliefs about trees and
forests in Africa are subject to variations. The point is that there
was various use of the forest in Africa based on localities. The
particular kind of forest that was considered to be an evil forest
may not be an evil forest in another locality. A type of forest
that was considered unreachable in one locality may be easily
navigated by forest-dwellers in another locality. Whatever the
perception of forest, it helped the people in that particular
community to adjust and adapt to the comic forces in that forest.
African beliefs and perceptions about the forests no matter how
you understand it, helped in ecological preservation and inhib-
ited climate change either consciously or unconsciously. Trees
and forests were left uncultivated and allowed to flourish
thereby preserving the lungs of life that provided oxygen and
that absorbed carbon dioxide from the environment. Compare
this with the so-called enlightened colonial mindset and fanati-
cal Christianity that have little or no value for sacred trees and
forests. Trees are felled without taking into consideration that
such act will cause climate change on a local level and deplete
the atmosphere of oxygen that human persons need. It should
be realized that from every perspective such as physical health,
mental health, environment, aesthetics, etc. every tree that is
felled, not to speak of forests that are destroyed, the earth is
impoverished and a great deal of species is lost. African forests
such as the mangrove forests and rain forests are rich in biodi-
versity, medicinal resources, spiritual recreation opportunities,
arenas for education and training into manhood/womanhood,
etc. Every loss of an African forest is a great loss.
It is imperative to continue to insist that the value of African
forests goes beyond utilitarian purposes. This can be adduced
from the value of plants and trees that constitute the forest.
Writing on tree spirits in Africa, Burnham (2000) enunciates
that: “pla nts ar e the esse nce of li fe . They sustai n us al l, but the ir
significance to Africans is far deeper. Their importance lies in
their closeness to creation and hence their purity … ‘In the
divine leaves we are able to find understanding of ourselves and
dreams’” (p. 36). In Haitian Voudou, which could be consid-
ered an African ancestrally derived religious culture, there is a
deep reverence for trees and forest in accordance with its West
African inspired background. As Rey (2005) relates, spirits and
ancestors inhabit nature, trees inclusive. Sprits and ancestors
have trees as their most precious homes. Explicating this point
further, Rey (2008) indicates that: “The dead are likewise
deeply enmeshed in nature and conceived of as residing either
under the ground, across the water, or in the forest. Trees and
the forest, though increasingly scarce in the impoverished na-
tion, have thus always featured prominently in Haitian Vou-
dou’s rich symbolism and mythology” (p. 1659). He points out
that the significance of trees in Voudou arises from the fact that
it is the source of the sacred drum, the Voudou priest’s sacred
rattle, source of divine approach. Certain species of trees are
deeply revered and are planted to demarcate shrines. With ref-
erence to Benin Republic in West Africa, Rey (2008) shows
further that the spirits of ancestors resides in ceiba pentenda, a
most venerated tree in the Caribbean. What Rey argues about
the Afro-Caribbean countries is equally true of mainland Africa.
He argues that: “however pervasive is this spirit of reverence
for trees in Haiti, it has been overwhelmed by the nation’s gru-
eling poverty and overpopulation … the result is desertification
and a litany of related ecological problems. Thanks to Voudou,
at least, in some of the countries (sic) most desertified regions
there are at least a few mapou trees…” (p. 1659). This is equally
true of many African countries. Many urban cities would have
been totally bereft of trees if not for the sacred groves that are
still in existence in those cities. While not debating the veracity
of the beliefs of traditional religions, the fact remains they de-
serve credit for being a source that has preserved trees and for-
ests for present day Africa. There is need to reclaim the lan-
guage for deep reverence for trees, without equating the trees to
the cosmic creator. According to Taringa (2006), the Shona
people: “believe that particular trees, forests and mountain for-
ests are imbued with spirits. They develop, like in the case of
animals, taboos around the cutting and destruction of certain
trees, shrubs and forests” (p. 208). Also in Shona beliefs there
were sacred forests and mountain forests, the burial sites of
chiefs, the habitation of guardian spirits and the ancestors.
These forests were called rambamtewa which means woodland
that could not be cut. It was morally wrong to cut woods in
these places and firewood and other resources needed by hu-
man persons have to be fetched from other places. The animals
and plants in these sacred forests were protected from extinc-
tion (Tanringa, 2006).
It ought to be noted that despite the fact that there were evil
forests in Africa, the evil forests were not the creation of the
Creator. Evil forests are the result of various malevolent spirits
that wrestle against human destiny and want to thwart the ef-
forts of the benevolent creator. Various myths in Africa spell
out the origin of evil. It is not within the scope of this piece to
examine that. The reality of the goodness of the forest is cor-
roborated by the predominant belief of the Pygmy of the Cen-
tral African forest. In the website Traditional African Religion
(2012), it is affirmed of the Pygmies that:
The dominant Pygmy belief is in the god of the forest,
who is benevolent, and to whom men pay as much respect
as they do to their own parents. There are popular songs
of joy and praise which have as motif the simple theme
that the forest is good. The forest-god is in the trees or the
river or waiting silently near his worshipper, and a basket
of food is the sign that he has been invoked. There are re-
ligious societies, particularly male, which function in
celebration of the forest-god and are active at festivals of
puberty for boys and girls, with ritual dancing and feast-
Equally important to state about the African concept of the
forest is that every area of African life and culture is casted in a
paradigm of communalism. The African communal attitude to
life affected all elements of life. Tangwa (2006) interprets the
African outlook as eco-bio-communitarianism which implies
“recognition and acceptance of interdependence and peaceful
co-existence between earth, plants, animals, and humans” (p.
389). The communal outlook also implies as Tangwa (2006)
argues that all of life is seen as one, and the distinction between
plants, animals, and inanimate elements is flexible and slim.
This does not mean there is no difference between plants and
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
animals, and other elements in the world, but no matter the
difference all beings and realities in the cosmos intermingle and
interrelate. Tangwa (2006) argues further that among his own
Nso’ people of the Bamenda in Cameroon this difference is
recognized but it does not give human persons any special
privilege or unlimited right to subdue, dominate, conquer and
exploit nature, rather human persons are to live with nature in a
spirit of co-existence and friendship making moderate use of
the things of nature.
This also affects the African understanding of the forests and
trees. The forests are a communal heritage from the ancestors.
It is held in trust by the community under the direction of the
town elders and chiefs for the wellbeing of the entire commu-
nity. There are no personal or private forests in traditional Af-
rica. You cannot own the forests. Not even the community
owns the forests. This being the case you are not at liberty to do
what you desire with the forests. There were customary laws in
the forms of taboos that governed the human relationship with
the forests. There were totemic and sacred trees in the forest
that were not to be touched or felled. In most places in tradi-
tional Africa, it was prohibited to cut down young and infantile
plants and trees. Those trees belong to the entire community are
expressed very well in the Shona belief that all large trees be-
long to the ancestral spirits. It is important to note that the very
land or earth on which forests and trees grow and depend on is
a communal heritage and so all things on the land are part of it.
Jacob Olupona as cited by Maguire (2000) opines accurately
that: “Land...belongs to the ancestors. The eldest in the clan had
the right to use and protect the land, but it was a sacred trust,
not an absolute right. It was a kind of communal ownership,
and it certainly did not involve the right to abuse the land. The
reverence that was felt for the ancestors was also felt for the
land. This is a beautiful example of we-self culture” (p. 54).
The same reverence that is given to the land must be accorded
all that the land carries or produces, including plants, herbs, and
Concluding Reflections
The call for reclaiming viable aspects of traditional thoughts
on forests should not be equated to romanticism with the past.
Taringa (2009) cites Tomalin who argues that in most literature
on religion and the environment there is a romanticising of the
past in which people perceive there was an eco-golden age that
existed in the indigenous past in which people of non-industrial
societies lived in deep friendliness with the earth. The fact is
that there is no culture or groups of people that can totally
separate or cut themselves off from their past. The past can
serve as a teacher and even as a midwife of new culture. The
African traditional past is not totally useless. If there are things
that inspire and can contribute to environmental protection,
they need to be harvested and re-cultivated. It will be dishonest
to affirm that some aspects of the African past cannot serve
environmental protection. So also it will be dishonest to claim
that every aspect of the African past can serve environmental
preservation. In the African past there were harmful practices
that degraded the earth, so also there were practices that pro-
tected the earth. The challenge before African scholars is to
retrieve what is viable and still relevant and discard what is
Traditional beliefs about trees and forests have enabled much
more forests, sacred groves, and trees to still be standing; thus
enabling Africans to experience much more the benefits from
the values in trees and forests. Without traditional beliefs about
sacred trees and forests, perhaps the onslaught of colonialism,
its attendant consequences, and fanatical Christianity that de-
stroys trees and forests in the name of converting people to
Christ, would have been more devastating and there would have
been fewer trees standing, and the effect of the ecological crisis
in Africa would have been worse. As noted earlier this piece is
not an endorsement of every form of beliefs and practices asso-
ciated with trees and forests. Imagine if much of the African
beliefs and practices mentioned above were to be revitalized,
refined and reconceptualised and enhanced with further scien-
tific data it will greatly help in ecological preservation.
It should be concluded that it is imperative to rethink the
wholesome condemnation of African cultural beliefs and prac-
tices. When this is critically done it would be seen that there are
viable gems that Africa can bring to the marketplace of global-
ization that can help to combat climate change and environ-
mental crisis.
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