Beyond Belief - Linking faiths and protected areas for biodiversity conservation

Posted on 09 February 2006

A WWF/ARC publication with special focus on the links between faiths and the world’s growing protected areas network.

A WWF/ARC publication with special focus on the links between faiths and the world’s growing protected areas network

Most people in the world follow some kind of spiritual faith, and faiths have enormous impacts on the way that we think and behave, including how we relate to the natural world. This reports looks at how faiths interact with one of the main tools of conservation – protected areas. These links come in two major forms:

* Sacred places – both sacred natural sites and built environments existing in natural or semi-natural areas. These can contribute very directly to global conservation efforts because they are often themselves well-conserved, through traditions that sometimes stretch back for thousands of years;

* Influence of faiths – through their philosophy, actions and influence, faiths can have a major impact on the way their followers view the protection of nature.

Links between faiths and conservation of land and water exist throughout the world and involve every faith system that we have examined. Faiths have been involved in some of the earliest forms of habitat protection in existence, both through the preservation of particular places as sacred natural sites and through religious-based control systems such as the himas system in Islam. Sacred areas are probably the oldest form of habitat protection on the planet and still form a large and mainly unrecognised network of sanctuaries around the world. A proportion of these sites (probably a large proportion) are also highly successful at conserving natural ecology and biodiversity.

The nature of these interactions is discussed in some detail. We include a survey of a hundred protected areas around the world which also contain important values to one or more faiths and also describe some sacred sites outside protected areas that have high conservation values. These issues are discussed in greater detail in 14 case studies from Kenya, Tanzania, Egypt, Lebanon, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, China, Mongolia, Europe, Finland, Australia and Colombia.

Unfortunately, many sacred natural areas and faith-based land management systems are currently under threat, because of cultural breakdown, pressures on land and resources and poor governance that together permit deleterious use. There is still a lot to be learned about where sacred sites exist, what level of risk they face and about exactly what relationship they have to biodiversity conservation.

From a conservation perspective, sacred natural sites and other places of importance to faith groups exist both inside and outside official “protected areas” as recognised by IUCN The World Conservation Union and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Sacred natural sites can usefully be integrated into protected area systems using any of the recognised management models and governance types. Bringing a sacred area into a national protected area system can increase protection for the site but sometimes at the expense of some of its spiritual values.

The existence of a sacred site within a protected area can also create challenges for managers. Decisions about whether or not to seek to make a sacred natural site or other land or sea area important to faiths into an official protected area therefore need to be made on a case-by-case basis. Making such areas an explicit part of biodiversity conservation strategies has the additional and very important function of bringing conservation issues into the mainstream thinking of faith groups. And it brings the all too often neglected issues of spirit and culture to the foreground of conservation approaches.

Success in co-managing for faith and nature is almost always a matter of developing effective and trusting partnerships between the different stakeholders involved. Today the spiritual values of a site are frequently not considered when planning conservation and conservationists (protected area managers, policy makers, and even NGO staff) often lack the skills or knowledge to deal effectively with sacred sites and the people for whom they are sacred. Further guidance is needed about how sites can best be managed to address the needs of both faith groups and conservation biology, and some suggestions are outlined in the recommendations.

Beyond Belief - Linking faiths and protected areas for biodiversity conservation