Sacred natural sites can be mysterious and intriguing places. How comes sacred forest groves have been maintained in India throughout times of modern day development? What social mechanisms lay at the basis of the customary governance of sacred lakes of the Niger Delta? Is the biodiversity preserved in sacred natural sites a by-product or an intentional result of religious practice? All these questions aroused the curiosity of dedicated scientists from all over Europe who gathered for a one day symposium in Zurich on October the 25th.
The symposium was organised by Claudia Rutte who has studied sacred natural sites since 2006 and started a database allowing the structural and meta-analysis of peer review academic journal articles. In doing so she inspired many scientists around her and also connected with those who were already working on the subject in other universities around Europe.
The database has been developed to do scientific research on sacred natural sites but according to Shonil Bhagwat from Oxford University it also allows the mapping of sacred natural sites. In his guest lecture Shonil suggested that the mapping of sacred natural sites around the world would help prevent unintended damage to them and it might also be a useful tool to support policy makers.
The struggle for the protection of sacred natural site has since long been intertwined with that of the international indigenous rights movement which is pitted against resource capture and inequitable policies. Recent incursions of extractive industries in world Heritage Sites testify of their increasing influence on global economic powers. Economists often say that one cannot manage what they cannot measure, but how do we measure the true values of a sacred natural site and who eventually makes decisions over those places?
Some of those questions had already been subject to the research of some of the participants at the symposium. “I combine theories and concepts of institutional economics with resilience thinking to explain adaptation or persistence in the governance of sacred natural sites” said Katrin Daedlow, research assistant and PhD candidate Humboldt-University in Berlin. Like Kathrin sevral scientists had shown to be struggling with a conceptual scientific framework for their studies others took an approach that directly supported practical conservation activities.
Estonian sacred sites had not only been studied and documented, their day to day management is also supported through the work of IUCN and UNESCO. Their Guidelines on sacred natural sites for protected area managers are have been translated into Estonian and are in the processes of being endorsed and implemented by the national and regional governments. Training workshops are being scheduled and a national register of sacred natural sites is expected to grow over the coming years.
Bas Verschuuren of the Sacred Natural Sites Initiative and Co-Chair to the IUCN Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values stressed the need for research to be applied and meaningful to the custodians of sacred natural sites. “With the help of scientists we can achieve a lot but we must seek guidance from custodians and we must not forget that many sacred natural sites embody not only the spiritual but also the scientific traditions of many different cultures around the world”. Scientists must be humble and learn from those indigenous sciences and worldviews in order to truly do inter-disciplinary research.
The study of sacred natural sites is coming into swing as some of the participants noted. It will be a hot issue that will attract funding from donors looking to support sympathetic spaces in research institutions and conservation agencies. Who is going to broker the interests between the custodians of sacred natural sites and scientists? How will these endeavours effectively contribute to the protection, conservation and revitalisation of sacred natural sites? These questions where burning on everyone’s mind and although they were largely left unanswered it is hoped that they will remain as a guidance to scientists interested in sacred natural sites.