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Custodian, thoughtful. © The African Biodiversity Network
April 2012

Custodians of sacred sites in Africa unite

The traditional custodians of sacred sites from four African countries (Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda) met on 28 April in Kenya to create a common guideline to help other custodians everywhere in Africa in their fight to protect their sacred places. Quote from the introduction of their statement:

'We are deeply concerned about our Earth because she is suffering from increasing destruction despite all the discussions, international meetings, facts and figures and warning signs from Earth.

'The future of our children and the children of all the species of Earth are threatened. When this last generation of elders dies, we will lose the memory of how to live respectfully on our planet, if we do not learn from them. Our generation living now has a responsibility like no other generation before us. Our capacity to stop the current addiction to money from destroying the very conditions of life and the health of our planet, will determine our children's future.

'We call on governments, corporations, law and policy makers, and civil society to recognize that Africa has Sacred Sites and custodians who are responsible for protecting them, in order to protect the wellbeing of the planet.'

At their meeting, the custodians compiled 14 'common customary laws of sacred sites' – you can download the paper here (140Kb)

source: The African Biodiversity Network

see also: Mapping sacred sites for their protection, Protecting sacred natural sites worldwide, Sacred Site to be recognised term

sacred grove at Heggala Aiyappa, Western Ghats, India. © Claudia Rutte
Oct 2011

Mapping sacred sites for their protection

'Nature conservationists over the last decade have begun to recognize and document the potential of sacred natural sites for preserving biological diversity. Sacred sites in this context are natural or semi-natural areas protected in the name of spiritual or religious beliefs that also offer special advantages of community-based, long-term resource management.

'While most studies about sacred natural sites have focused on traditional cultures and animistic beliefs, there is growing evidence that such sites located in Western, Judeo-Christian contexts also convey distinct conservation advantages.'

…says Claudia Rutte, a behavioural ecologist based in Switzerland, who in 2010, together with Shonil Bhagwat, an ecologist based at Oxford University, UK, started SANASI (Sacred Natural Sites), a database-project aiming to provide scientific data on sacred natural sites for research and policy making. The database is also publicly available via the website Mapping the Sacred.

SANASI soon gained the support of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) and the IUCN's Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas (see World tree news Sept. 2003 and Oct. 2010) because it is not just an academic exercise. It is a further strengthening element in the networking of indigenous custodians of sacred natural sites all over the world. 'Sites', by the way, does not only mean relatively small places but can just as well refer to a large forest or an extensive mountain side.

On 25 October 2011, SANASI held its first symposium in Zurich, bringing together scientists that have been engaged with various forms of research on sacred natural sites. The goal of this symposium was to assess the field's state of knowledge, as well as to identify the most promising future research directions.

string: Protecting sacred natural sites worldwide, Sacred Site to be recognised term

cloud forest at the Santa María Volcano, or Gagxanul, a sacred natural site in Guatemala. © Bas Verschuuren
Oct 2010

Protecting sacred natural sites worldwide

'Sacred natural sites provide for the protection of biodiversity but also for the continuation of cultural practices,' says Bas Verschuuren, Co-chair of the Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas, a sub-division of the IUCN (= International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world's largest and oldest conservation organisation), and Coordinator for the Sacred Natural Sites Initiative.

'As most of the threats that sacred natural sites face today, such as tourism, industrialization and urbanization, affect both cultural and biological values, they weaken the special relationship between people and nature that is so typical to these areas and so precious not only to many cultures around the world but also to humanity as a whole."

Verschuuren is also lead editor of a new book, Sacred Natural Sites: Conserving nature and culture, which is being launched by IUCN at the Convention on Biological Diversity conference in Nagoya, Japan. The launch is part of an event organised by ETC-COMPAS and IUCN and is dedicated to promoting sacred natural sites and their crucial role in conserving nature and culture.

Guidelines Cover

Furthermore, the IUCN Specialist Group together with UNESCO is publishing Sacred Natural Sites: Guidelines for Protected Area Managers, an action plan brochure in various language editions. So far, it can be downloaded in English, Spanish, Russian, French, Estonian, Japanese or Korean (translators wanted for other languages).

Buddhist monks in northwest Cambodia ordaining a tree. © Equator Initiative
Oct 2010

Buddhist monks ordain trees as monks

In response to widespread logging, the monks of the Samraong Pagoda acquired legal protection for 18,261 hectares (45,000 acres) of evergreen forest in northwest Cambodia. They established patrol teams, demarcated the forest's boundaries, and raised environmental awareness among local communities. The monks have developed unique approaches to law enforcement based on Buddhist principles, demonstrating the power of linking conservation with traditional customs and beliefs. [1]

In Buddhist thought and teaching (based particularly on the Lotus Sutra) the Buddha can take any form to bring about the release of any aspect of nature from suffering – including taking the shape of a tree. Based upon this and in response to the illegal destruction of trees in Cambodia and Thailand, Buddhist monks working in partnership with the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), have ordained trees as monks. Wrapped in robes these trees are totally protected and the forest within which they stand becomes a sacred and protected area. [2]

The monks of the Samraong Pagoda received the 2010 Equator Prize for outstanding community efforts to conserve biodiversity. The award is sponsored by the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

Monk's Community Forest is now Cambodia's largest community forest. While logging and hunting are prohibited, villagers may use traditional fishing methods, collect fallen timber for construction, and harvest non-timber forest products like bamboo, wild ginger, fruit and mushrooms. Illegal logging of the forest has been reduced significantly.

Watch video and download full report here.

Kondh children swinging in the trees. © Survival International
Aug 2010

Indian Tribe in victory over mining giant

The Dongria Kondh tribe has won an historic battle to save their lands and forests from big-scale bauxite mining on Niyamgiri Mountain in eastern India. Their resistance became a test of whether a small marginalised tribe could stand up against a multinational with its army of lawyers, lobbyists and PR firms. The intruder, who has already built a huge aluminium refinery below the sacred mountain, is the British company Vedanta Resources, worth $8bn.

The Dongria Kondh have been supported by tribal rights campaign group Survival International (founded 1969 in London) who in turn had support from celebrities like Michael Palin, Joanna Lumley, Colin Firth and James Cameron – hence the press began to speak of the 'real Avatar tribe'. (Sadly, there are many of them!)

But the victory of the Dongria Kondh is in danger as India's Supreme Court is reviewing the case.

To keep up to date check the Survival International page.

A giant Thuja plicata on Meares Island, Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia, Sept. 2007  © Rob Dabal/Wiki Creative Commons
June 2009

Old-growth forest conservation on Vancouver Island

Clayoquot Sound continues to be at the forefront of old-growth forest conservation efforts on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, if not in North America as a whole. The way for environmental organisations is to support enacting First Nations' land-use planning initiatives into law.

This would also lead to special protection for sacred trees. For example, the Hupacasath First Nation (one of the Nuu-chah-nulth tribes) has a land-use plan that includes increased protection for the old-growth redcedars (Thuja plicata), yellow-cedars (Callitropsis nootkatensis) and the ecosystems they support.

Read more: Clayoquot Sound: Leading the way

tree shrine in Nepal. © Lisann Drews
Sept 2003

Sacred Site to be recognised term

WWF International and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) are launching a programme to designate 'sacred site' an internationally recognised term, hoping to give additional protection to the world's environmentally important (but often threatened) sacred places such as mountains, forests, rivers and pilgrimage routes.

To declare a place or an area as sacred (= untouchable, taboo) is the oldest method of habitat protection on the planet, yet these biological and cultural treasures are under threat — as are their appointed guardians who, in fulfilling their tasks, have been following millennia-old traditions. Around the world there are still thousands of places regarded as sacred. Some are carefully guarded by indigenous people and are places for ceremony and prayer, others are national shrines known to millions.

The concept of a sacred place, a sacred natural site, is deeply understood by indigenous people all over the world. Only in Europe this old ecological wisdom got lost when Christian missionaries began in the fourth century to destroy sacred sites all over Europe and the Near East. This was a fatal blow to the ancient type of ecology inherent in human beings because it broke people's living relationship with the land they lived on and replaced it with an assumption that the deconsecrated Earth can be mistreated and exploited. The rest is history – and global warming.

It seems that for humanity, in order to behave not self-destructively but in an ecologically sound way, the sacred needs to have a place in the psyche.

Words have power. The term 'sacred land' makes us stop and think. We recognize that the Earth and the many gifts of the planet that sustain all our lives cannot be taken for granted. It reminds us that all cultures have, or used to have, traditions and ceremonies to give thanks to the land, to express gratitude, respect and joy. Everywhere, the term 'sacred' also meant that the grove or spring or mountain named such was dedicated to Spirit or God, and taboo for development or exploitation of any kind.

To launch this term into the international discussion, to reconstitute its social acceptance (in Christian countries) and make it legally recognised is an important step to advance the protection of many ecotopes and the indigenous groups that guard them.

Moreover, it is a long-overdue step for the rich countries ('the white man') to respect the different world view of traditional communities and tribal peoples.

source: ARC
string: Mapping sacred sites for their protection, Protecting sacred natural sites worldwide
Read more: ARC's Sacred Land Project