Governments from internationally made grand guarantees last month on the biodiversity conference in Montreal to save lots of nature by protecting 30 percent of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030. But back home many are presiding over the destruction of a few of the most ancient and precious protected areas on Earth — sacred groves and places which have long been preserved by religious fervor and strict taboos which are often far simpler than game wardens or environmental statutes.
No person knows what number of sacred natural places there are internationally. They could number within the a whole bunch of 1000’s. Just about all societies have them — from Hindu villages in India to Catholic communities within the hills of Italy, and native tribes of the Americas to African animists. The creation and longevity of those places are testament to the ability of faith as a tool for community-based conservation. Sacred natural places are “the oldest type of habitat protection in human history,” says Piero Zannini of the University of Bologna, writer of a 2021 assessment of their value. “They have gotten ever more vital as reservoirs of biodiversity.”
In lots of places they’re the one refuges for endangered species and rare ecosystems. Church forests are actually almost the one trees left within the Amhara Province of Ethiopia, holding back advancing deserts. In Japan, there are few if any ancient lowland forests outside the grounds of Shinto temples, that are estimated to cover greater than a quarter-million acres.
Unlike state-supported parks and guarded areas, there are few national and no international inventories of sacred groves.
Some have been adopted into national state-funded conservation networks. The Yosemite landscape in California’s Sierra Nevada was, says Zannini, “considered sacred and guarded as such by local [Native American] people for a lot of centuries” before being made a national park in 1890. But most remain a “shadow conservation network.”
Unlike state-supported parks and guarded areas, there are few national and no international inventories of those sacred places. “They should not getting sufficient attention from conservationists or the scientific community,” he says. “COP15 [the Montreal conference] and similar events are still neglecting sacred natural sites.”
But Zannini warns that protecting these places would require greater than simply integrating them into national protected-area networks. Many sacred natural sites, he says, are distinctive precisely because they exist separate from official conservation and should require special protection or designation. Protected areas are mostly large and distant, while sacred sites are smaller and mixed in amongst farms and other people. The “standardized management” typical of protected areas could end in a lack of species that survive through interaction with human activities — for instance, species which are cultivated and harvested for medicines or that simply find habitat around farms, homes, or temple precincts.
In Europe, many sacred groves date back to pre-Christian and classical times. Celts, Druids, Gauls, Lithuanians, Finns, and Welsh all have histories of tending sacred groves. Many were worn out by the spread of Christianity, which has often celebrated mankind’s ascendancy over nature and preferred churches to sanctified nature. But not at all times.
Fabrizio Frascaroli of the University of Zurich has plotted a network of Catholic sacred natural sites across central Italy, “probably the most vital biodiversity hotspots in Europe.” They could have benefited from the continuing influence of a 13th-century nature-loving local, St. Francis of Assisi. But many were inherited from pre-Christian times. The sacred evergreen oak woodland at Monteluco within the hills of Umbria dates back at the very least to the third century B.C. and was originally dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter.
In rural Estonia, a preferred revivalist forest-worshiping movement called Maausk, claims links to pre-Christian pagans. Each village has its own sacred forest, where to this present day disciples leave harvest gifts within the groves for his or her ancestors. Folklorists say the forests of this small Baltic nation have long been seen as bastions against outside influences, whether Lutheran Christians from Germany or Soviet Union invaders throughout the Second World War, when people sought refuge within the forests and a national resistance movement referred to as the Forest Brothers sprang up.
Elders within the foothills of the Himalayas say that as much as 30 percent of their land was once protected as sacred.
Yet as Christian missionaries spread around the globe, their crusades against “pagan” beliefs damaged the natural places those beliefs protected, says Indian ecologist Madhav Gadgil, who has pioneered research on these areas in his home country for half a century. Elders within the foothills of the Himalayas told him that as much as 30 percent of their land was once protected as sacred.
Until recently, there have been estimated to be greater than 100,000 sacred natural sites across India, though just some 14,000 have been described by researchers. The country’s rapid economic development is taking its toll. “Spiritual beliefs [are] not sufficient to make sure their survival,” in response to Gadgil. Yet just as there are not any reliable statistics on their numbers, so are there none on their demise.
However it is occurring. In arid Rajasthan in northwest India, sacred stands of trees — known locally as orans, derived from the Sanskrit word for forest — have been protected for hundreds of years as sources of firewood, water, and livestock fodder and for his or her spiritual and ecological value. Grazing helped maintain their ecology. But now they’re being uprooted to make way for huge arrays of solar panels and attendant pylons.
The story is comparable In China. Last month’s Montreal biodiversity conference was originally scheduled for Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, until Covid-19 intervened. Had foreign reporters gone to Yunnan, they may need uncovered a story of a catastrophic decline in sacred sites.
The distinctive montane rainforests forests protected on several hundred holy hills in Yunnan were traditionally held to be inhabited by gods of the Yi and Dai people. They were once out of bounds to humans, except when making sacrifices to the deities. Based on Pei Shengji of the Kunming Institute of Botany, these trees recently have rarely been found anywhere else but on these holy mountainsides. But they’re rapidly being lost because the sacred sites are taken over by rubber plantations.
In Siberia, meanwhile, many Indigenous communities have sacred sites within the boreal forests. Local shaman still oversee a network of them within the Karakol sacred valley in Russia’s Altai Republic, which is home to snow leopards. However the valley’s sanctity — and the leopard’s habitat — is now threatened by construction of a pipeline to produce Siberian gas to China.
In Australia too, the clash between old religion and recent economics often plays out over sacred sites. The country’s native Aborigines still recognize “dreamtime” sacred groves, starting from spiritually significant rainforests in Queensland to woodlands within the arid interior. But threats increase. In 2020, highway engineers within the state of Victoria defied a whole bunch of protesters and started bulldozing some 200 trees sacred to local Djab Wurrung women.
Danger is commonly intrinsic to the aura of sacred groves. “Probably the most potent type of sacred grove protection is fear.”
One tree slated for destruction was an enormous 800-year-old, hole at the bottom, that had been used as a shelter for giving birth by 50 generations of girls. At one other, Aboriginal women have long planted the placentas of their new-born babies as a connection to their ancestors. One 350-year-old tree was felled. But amid court cases, and the preparation of a recent cultural heritage management plan for the world, the consequence of the decade-long standoff stays unclear.
In parts of Africa, traditions remain strong. The Ethiopian highlands have a patchwork of about 20,000 small forests surrounding Ethiopian Christian Orthodox Tewahedo churches and monasteries. They’re the region’s only remaining Afromontane forests, in response to Travis Reynolds of the University of Vermont, who has studied them with local scholar Mesfin Sahle. But due to the protection of parishioners they’ve survived and prolonged their range in recent times, even while surrounding agricultural areas have turned to abandon.
Often African sacred sites reflect animist traditions. The Kikuyu in Kenya protect groves of a fig tree called the mugumu for prayers, to honor ancestors, and as sites for animal sacrifices; in Ivory Coast, villagers host initiation ceremonies in protected areas; and in Sierra Leone, they grow medicinal plants.
But such sacred groves might be dangerous places, too. In Pondoland, a crucial region of plant endemism on the eastern coast of South Africa, the tiny damp and shaded sacred groves dotted amongst grazing pastures may look harmless. But locals told Yale Environment 360 in 2017 that they often contain plants, secretly cultivated by villagers, that make poisons utilized in local vendettas and might have been utilized in a recent assassination.
Danger is commonly intrinsic to the aura of sacred groves, in response to Jonathan Onyekwelu of the Federal University of Technology Akure in Nigeria. “Probably the most potent type of sacred grove protection is fear,” he says. On the biodiverse Ogun-Onire sacred grove in southwest Nigeria, which he has studied, the standard belief is “that no person enters … and comes out alive,” unless a sacrifice is made to the spirits beforehand.
Secrecy is one other characteristic of many animist sacred sites. Sometimes knowledge of their biological wealth is deliberately kept close “as a type of protection or perhaps a tenet of their faith … rendering the positioning invisible to the eyes of outsiders,” in response to Nigel Dudley, a British consultant ecologist and early advocate of sacred sites.
But such secrecy might be their downfall, as traditional knowledge is lost and sacred sites are forgotten. “A century ago almost every village in southwestern Nigeria had a sacred grove,” says Onyekwelu. “Today many of the groves have shrunk to very small areas or abandoned.” He believes that state backing or tourism are the probably ways to halt the loss.
The latter actually worked for a network of monkey sanctuaries in Ghana. The Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary in central Ghana was originally protected within the 1820s, after a standard fetish priest declared that its African colobus and Lowe’s mona monkeys were children of a neighborhood spirit. It survived in secret through the colonial era and grew in ecological importance as surrounding forests disappeared. Within the Seventies, with animist beliefs fading, some locals asked the federal government to provide the reserve formal protection. Now it’s a renowned tourist destination, with its own website and guest house.
But even in the fashionable world, old traditions may remain vital to take care of local support for such sanctuaries, says Gordon Sarfo-Adu, a manager at Ghana’s Forest Commission. “It’s now time to acknowledge the worth of traditional sacred grove institutions [for] biodiversity protection,” he wrote recently. But that recognition should include maintaining customary practices for tending and protecting them, and inspiring the preservation of people knowledge and classifications of plants, “somewhat than scientific designations, which have little intending to the local people.”
Much less is documented about sacred natural sites within the Americas than within the Old World. But they undoubtedly existed on a big scale, and a few persist.
Within the hills of southern Guyana, the evidence for the sacred sites of the Wapichan people is obvious. They still swim in sacred creeks, climb sacred trees, and visit ancestral graves in sacred forests. In Shulinab village, tribal official Claudine La Rose described to this writer in 2015 how these places had been preserved within the face of opposition from Jesuit missionaries, and explained their continued importance. “The elders told us … in regards to the sacred sites and the spirit grandfathers that preside over natural resources,” she said, “how if you happen to cut down certain trees within the forest you’re going to get sick and die, punished by the spirits.”
The arrival of Europeans within the Americas destroyed many sacred sites and worn out much of the standard knowledge they enshrined.
Within the Ecuadorean Andes, sacred cloud forests protect the threatened Andean condor. While in neighboring Peru, a proposed spiritual park on land sacred to the Q’eros people is home to pumas, vicunas, and distinctive forests of Polyepsis, a member of the rose family that’s believed to be the highest-elevation flowering tree on Earth.
The arrival of Europeans destroyed many such sites and worn out much of the standard knowledge they enshrined. But African slaves shipped by the Europeans sometimes brought their very own traditions that survive to this present day. In eastern Jamaica, the Windward Maroons — descendants of a slave rebellion on the Caribbean island within the 17th century — have kept alive reverence for sacred groves within the forests of the Blue and John Crow Mountains.
In the USA, the Menominee people of Wisconsin have practiced a complicated system of sustainable logging for greater than 150 years within the forest that makes up most of their reservation. The foundations are tied to cultural principles and spiritual values derived from the will to guard the forest habitat of the five animals that feature within the tribe’s creation story and represent its five clans — the wolf, bear, eagle, moose, and crane.
Modern silviculturists and forest ecologists commonly make pilgrimages to the Menominee reservation to learn the way they do it. But the reply is at root as much spiritual as technical. Their forests are sacred and treated as such.