By Bas Verschuuren.
From 2 – 6 November 2011, some 30 Europeans participated in a workshop on the Spiritual Values of Protected Areas of Europe. Organised by the German Agency for Nature Conservation, the workshop took place at the International Academy for Nature Conservation on Isle of Vilm and was the first of its kind in organised in Europe. The proceedings of the workshop are expected to be completed and distributed in electronic format at the end of January 2012.
Earlier this year we saw the first European workshop on community conserved areas held in Gerace Italy and a later a scientific seminar on sacred natural sites in Zurich Switzerland. Europe seems to be waking up to the role that communities, culture and spirituality play and can play in nature conservation. This workshop on spiritual values in protected areas affirms this growing recognition and interest.
The diverse presentations from Bosnia, Estonia, Poland, Germany, Ukraine, Spain, Italy, Finland and many other countries, clearly showed that all around Europe people’s relationships with surrounding natural areas and cultural landscapes are often characterised by spiritual experiences. Places that were famed for their biodiversity and recreational values quickly appeared as part of a new fabric of values.
Caves, mountains, rocks and springs are known to be inhabited by nature spirits to some and they may be the place for continuing long traditions in spiritual practice to others. Sacred natural sites exist all throughout Europe. Some, like Neolithic burial mouths or pre-historic petroglyphs mark the places of power that where once central to cultures that have long since vanished from the surface of the earth. Some of those places are being reinvigorated by those seeking a spiritual relationship with nature. New places however, are also marked as sacred and bestowed with spiritual value.
As one will expect, thousands of sacred naturals sites are also managed by religious organisations in Europe, and long netwroks of pilgrimages linking them are being conserved or revitalised. Whether the participants were discussing the religious forests of the Catholic and Orthodox Church or those sacred to indigenous Saami and Estonians their special ways of forest use is marked by a spiritual dimensions. The interests of these stakeholders as well as their historic relationships need to be carefully taken into account of protected area management. “This offers a real practical and in cases political challenge that arises from bringing intangible values into the realm of protected areas management and planning” says Josep Maria Mallarach Co-coordinator of the Delos Initiative sites.
Josep-Maria is currently coordinating the production of a manual to incorporate the intangible heritage into protected area planning and management with the Spanish Section of the Europarc Federation, which will be launched next summer. If this succeeds it may be serve as a good model for other European countries that need guidelines for better taking into account spiritual values in their protected areas.