The Links between Protected Areas, Faiths, and Sacred Natural Sites

Posted at: 14:07:20 12/07/2016 - Read: 230
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There are innumerable faiths and belief systems most people subscribe to one of the 11 “mainstream faiths”: in alphabetical order these are Bahai, Buddhism, Christianity, Daoism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Shinto, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism. Currently, around half the world’s population is Christian or Muslim, although there are many different traditions within both.

The full meaning of sacred has challenged thinkers for millennia. Fortunately, people do not have to understand the concept in its entirety to recognize its conservation significance. But it is important to agree what might constitute sacredness in this context. For the purposes of considering aspects of the natural world worthy of protection by tacit covenant within faith-based doctrine, the authors propose three dimensions: sacred nature, sacred species, and sacred natural sites.

Sacred Nature, Species, and Natural Sites

The most direct link between faiths and nature is that many faiths regard nature as imbued with sacred value. The sacred aspect of nature plays an important role in Australian aboriginal worldviews and some of their views are crossing into the mainstream environmental movement (Mulligan 2001).

Plant or animal is sacred does not necessarily mean humans leave it alone, but it does imply some human responsibility toward the species, sacredness can lead directly to protection. As traditional belief systems break down, however, the responsibilities associated with the sacred hunt also weaken and many sacred hunt animals have suffered severe population declines. Sacredness conserves both the trees themselves and associated populations of symbiotic and parasitic species.

The third way in which faiths contribute to conservation is through protection of “sacred natural sites.” Because such sites are often maintained free from all human interference, their ecology can closely resemble that found in strictly protected areas. Sacred natural sites are often small, although large sacred landscapes exist (Wild & McLeod 2008).

Importance of Sacred Natural Sites to Conservation

            Over the past few years, the assumption that sacred natural sites were good for biodiversity has been backed by a growing body of evidence (Dudley et al. 2006), although most research currently focuses on sacred groves. Sacred groves can thus contain important remnant biodiversity, which can be significant to conservation strategies in the absence of other habitat. Because they are generally small, their diversity is often less than in larger protected areas, unless care has been taken to maintain particular groups, such as medicinal plants, or if conditions support rare species.

Sacred Sites and Broader Conservation Strategies

A key decision is whether to gazette a sacred natural site as a protected area or to leave it as an “unofficial” community conserved area. Conservation organizations tend to be enthusiastic because sacred natural sites often represent secure protected areas. Protected-area status often means loss of control and attracts more attention to the site. Even where communities retain a management role, additional stakeholders can lead to a loss of influence.

Protected-area managers and conservation planners need to address faith issues in three main areas. They need to improve management for sacred values inside existing protected areas where sacred natural or built sites already exist, look at options for integrating other sacred areas more effectively within broad scale conservation approaches, and work out how faiths can contribute to efforts to develop ecologically representative protected area networks.

Recognition and protection of sacred natural sites is an important conservation strategy, but it is limited to a relatively small area in global terms. A potentially much larger contribution could come from cooperation between mainstream faiths and conservation organizations with respect to the former’s investment policies, land ownership, and management approaches. As owners of large areas of land, faith groups can also embrace more conservation-oriented approaches themselves. A network of private protected areas owned and managed by faith groups, could add substantially to global conservation efforts and help bring conservation issues to the fore in faith communities.


            Many sacred natural sites can contribute to biodiversity conservation strategies. Whether this is most effectively achieved by incorporating them inside a protected area or integrating them less officially as part of wider conservation strategies needs to be determined individually. Protecting natural areas with sacred significance also protects cultures and traditions that have existed for centuries. More generally, conservation organizations need to work much more closely with faith groups to identify effective ways to collaborate in terms of both land management and investment decisions. Further research is required, particularly about the location and status of sacred natural sites and about the quantitative data on benefits to conservation, including effective monitoring systems. Protected-area managers and conservation organizations must recognize the legitimacy of sacred values of nature, improve training in these issues, and work cooperatively with faith groups to ensure that spiritual and cultural values are effectively preserved within protected areas. At the same time, faith leaders could increase their contributions to the historic aim of completing an ecologically representative system of protected areas by committing a proportion of the land and water they control to this purpose.

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GeoInformatics Center - Thai Nguyen University of Agriculture and Forestry

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