Sacred places and biodiversity conservation

buddha_in_tree.bmpWhy should we care about biodiversity?  

I frequently lecture on biodiversity science and trends, and some of the policy implications of declining biodiversity.  The main theme I develop comes from the major scientific effort in the last decade on identifying and quantifying the impacts of changing biological diversity on the functioning of ecosystems, and their consequent impacts on natural services that ecosystem provide to humanity — fishery production, waste decomposition, storm protection, and so on.  This is a distinctly utilitarian approach to valuing biodiversity. 

But there are of course a host of other reasons for valuing biodiversity, albeit often more difficult to quantify rigorously than the effects on ecosystem processes, and some of them are arguably more compelling than the utilitarian arguments.  The spiritual and cultural values of natural phenomena generally, and biodiversity specifically, are major ones (as recognized in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment). In addition to its importance in its own right, recognizing the spiritual and cultural value of nature can add some muscle to conservation efforts.

An interesting new article in the Encyclopedia of Earth on “Sacred places and biodiversity conservation“, by Dr. Leslie Sponsel, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Hawai`i, considers some of these issues.  Sponsel considers sacred places “new frontier for interdisciplinary research on their own merits and for their relevance for biodiversity conservation.” Some highlights:

“A particularly striking case is provided by a study from Bruce A. Byers and colleagues with the Shona people who live in the Zambezi Valley of northern Zimbabwe . . . A sacred place (nzvimbo inoera) is where spirits are present. Associated with it are certain rules of access as well as behaviors that are not allowed (taboos). Moreover, Byers and colleagues discovered that deforestation is at least 50% lower in sacred forests than in their secular counterparts. Some 133 species of native plants occur in these sacred forests, whereas they are variously threatened, endangered, or extirpated elsewhere in Zimbabwe. These researchers conclude that strategies for biodiversity conservation that link culture and nature are more likely to be effective than those imposed from the top down by government and/or international agencies and that ignore the traditional beliefs, values, institutions, and practices of local societies.”

amazay_lake.jpgAnother specific example recently in the news involves  Canadian authorities’ recommendation against the use of Amazay Lake, British Columbia, as a mining waste dump. According to Earth News:

“The panel wrote that the conversion of Amazay lake into a tailings dump is ‘not in the public interest’ and that ‘both the Gitxsan and the Tse Keh Nay have stated that water is sacred to them, and that the destruction of a natural lake goes against their values as aboriginal people.’ The panel’s reasoning places sacred land issues on par with environmental concerns, which is indeed an important precedent in Canada. Politicians may still overrule the panel’s recommendation, but combined with the 2005 Supreme Court directive towards ‘meaningful consultation’ with Aboriginal people, the momentum appears to be heading in the right direction.”

stonehenge.jpgOne effort begun with the goal of aligning conservation goals with the spiritual beliefs of people tha use the areas is the Alliance for religions and conservation, which works with religious groups worldwide to develop homegrown environmental programs drawing on their own beliefs, values, and practices. ARC has implemented over a hundred projects that protect sacred sites.   Some of the more interesting (to me) examples include a recent statement of the “theology of the forest” from the Druze of Lebanon, and the Sacred Land project launched by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

[Photo of Buddha in a tree by Kenro Izu from Ayutthaya, Thailand]

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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3 Responses to Sacred places and biodiversity conservation

  1. Dinah says:

    I really like the pic of stonehege. Can you tell me how I can go about licensing it?

  2. Emmett Duffy says:

    Sorry Dinah,I’m afraid I just lifted it off the web somewhere. As I recall it was one of the top stonehenge pictures that comes up when you goggle stonehenge images. Good luck.

  3. Eric says:

    I like the focus on blending utilitarian and spiritual values. I don’t think the general public is particularly responsive to purely utilitarian arguments — particularly if they use words like “biodiversity” and “ecosystem services.”