As conservationists tear their hair out over the growing extinction rates of plants and animals, climate change effects and unsustainable development, there’s one forgotten element of the diversity of life that also urgently calls for their attention: the diversity of human cultures.
Our diversity as human beings – our wealth of knowledge, practices, beliefs, values and forms of social organization – is inextricably linked with nature: it has evolved over the centuries based on people’s continuous interactions with the natural environment. The fact that particularly diverse human cultures can be found in places of high biological diversity, such as tropical islands and tropical forests, indicates that we as human species are part of the dynamics of the natural world. It also means that when you lose diversity of cultures, there is some biological diversity that’s likely going to be lost as well and our resilience to new environmental challenges is likely to be undermined.
“It is known to biologists that biodiversity contributes to ecosystem’s resilience,” says Gonzalo Oviedo, IUCN's Senior Adviser for Social Policy. “But there are growing indications that the same applies to human cultures. There is no sustainable future without greater resilience of both ecological and social systems.”
Over the centuries, we have developed ways of interacting with nature, by assigning spiritual values to certain places: the so-called “sacred natural sites”. These include natural areas recognized as sacred by indigenous and traditional peoples, as well as natural areas recognized by religions or faiths as places for worship and remembrance.
“Most probably this practice originated in the cult of ancestors,” says Gonzalo Oviedo. “When people started to develop rites to play tribute to their ancestors, they did it in the places where their ancestors were buried. This way, cemeteries became the first places that people considered sacred. Sites where the most important moments of life took place such as birth, marriage, rites of passage or death were also considered to be holy.”
Natural phenomena that were difficult to understand or handle were another reason why people assigned sacred values to sites: they were considered to be expressions of the power of gods, spirits and nature that had to be preserved and conserved. The same goes for plants with medicinal qualities and animals that are unique in some way or particularly important for the ecosystem.
Many sacred sites have survived for hundreds of years and act as important biodiversity reservoirs. Local communities have developed in-depth knowledge about the environment, which to this day is highly valuable for their well-being, but also contributes to the sustainable use of natural resources, conservation and monitoring of ecological changes. Places considered holy by religious communities are also extremely important for conserving their precious biodiversity and maintaining valuable ecosystems and natural resources associated to such areas.
“This is something that’s little known and only in recent years did we start to explore the very important contribution that these places make to conservation,” says Gonzalo Oviedo. “There are hundreds of monasteries in Europe that contain very well conserved valuable biodiversity. For example, Mount Athos in Greece has extremely valuable biodiversity which is being looked after by the monastic communities that live in the area. In Asia, there are many examples of Buddhist communities that are the guardians and custodians of unique natural areas.”
But this contribution to conservation has been largely undervalued and today sacred sites face many complex challenges. While many lack protection and support, others have been integrated into protected areas without proper consideration of their particular features or respect for communities that inhabit them. Such insensitive management can degrade the quality of these places and can also affect the intimate relationship between cultures, religions and the nature they care for.
“I recently visited the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico – the area of the great Maya civilization,” says Gonzalo Oviedo. “Many pyramids and magnificent monuments of the past still exist there – many of them within protected areas. But I was shocked when I found out that some of the main pyramids, one of the greatest elements of the Maya culture, were now used as venues for big rock concerts! For the local Maya people that live in the area this was an absolute violation of the holy nature of the place. Tourism and other forms of public use can be very detrimental when no respect is shown for the environment and the cultural values of such places.”
Although there is still a long way to go, IUCN is already actively engaged in helping to protect these sites. The Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas of IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas, jointly with Gonzalo Oviedo and several programmes of IUCN, implement a wide range of actions in this regard.
“We’ve been working to inform the managers of protected areas about the urgent need to change this approach and we’ve been providing them with technical support,” says Gonzalo Oviedo. “We also engage with indigenous peoples’ organizations and monastic communities to help them improve the protection of their sites.”
But although proper management is necessary, broader awareness of the importance of these sites for the diversity of nature and cultures, and greater respect for the people that inhabit them – their values, traditions and beliefs – are essential for these unique places to survive.
Listen to an interview with Gonzalo Oviedo.
For more information please contact:
Gonzalo Oviedo, IUCN Senior Adviser - Social Policy, e-mail: email@example.com