Science - October 12, 2017

Sacred sites are good for nature

Didi de Vries

Places of spiritual significance in natural landscapes should be respected. Doing so prevents conflicts and benefits biodiversity, writes doctoral researcher Bas Verschuuren in his thesis.

©Bas Verschuuren. Illegal mining activities have damaged the habitat of the Tancharra in Ghana.

The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity states that indigenous peoples should be involved in plans to designate their homelands as nature conservation areas. But the recognition of sacred sites is not included in the treaty. Religious sites therefore often stay off the radar and are disregarded in decision-making about nature conservation or raw material extraction. Wrongly so, says Verschuuren.

‘Spiritual sites are part of the ethnic identity of indigenous populations. Their significance should be taken into consideration in decision-making.’ This means that different worldviews should be given equal status. Verschuuren calls this ‘ontological equality’.


By involving the local people in plans for nature conservation right from the start, you create a support base, says Verschuuren, and can avoid conflicts. Moreover, sacred sites are often places of great biodiversity, because people have taken good care of them for generations. So such places are often worth protecting for that reason alone. There are exceptions. ‘In regions which get masses of visitors, such as places of pilgrimage in the Himalaya, nature suffers.’

The importance of creating common ground between government and indigenous peoples is illustrated by the National Council for Spiritual Leaders in Guatemala, says Verschuuren. This organization champions the preservation and restoration of sacred Maya sites such as trees, mountains, caves and lakes. They have been lobbying parliament for their proposed bill for more than 10 years, so far in vain. The proposal gets rejected repeatedly because it includes letting indigenous peoples make decisions about their sacred sites and obliging mining interests to take them into account. Since some ruling parties in Guatemala support the mining companies, the Council does not stand a chance.

There are success stories too, though. Aboriginals in Australia were not consulted on plans for their home areas before the early 1970s. Now they are in charge. They work with government, researchers and companies with an interest in their area, and entirely from their own worldview. ‘I think that’s one of the nicest examples of combining an indigenous perspective with modern thinking about nature.’