Recognising indigenous “sacred areas” could double amount of protected land worldwide

More indigenous voices and knowledge need to be involved in decisions over indigenous owned land.
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Traditionally, sacred places have been a medium for local people to communicate with their gods. Matthew High

HYDERABAD, India (23 October, 2012)_Recognising areas conserved by indigenous peoples could double the amount of land designated as protected worldwide, said representatives attending the Convention on Biological Diversity conference last week, as international policymakers gathering nearby puzzled over ways to bump the global area of conserved land from 12 to 17 percent within the next eight years.

Whether a grove in the Khasi hills of Northeast India from which nothing can be removed, or an Ethiopian gudo boulder surrounded by forest where shamans can summon or stop the rain, sacred areas are not only rich in biodiversity but vital to keeping communities intact.

Granting recognition to these natural sites that have long been identified by communities as sacred may also help build trust between the conservation community and indigenous people who often feel like their needs and desires are overlooked, said representatives from Asia and Africa attending the conference.

“For indigenous people living in remote areas, belief and spiritual links to the land are extremely important,” said Phrang Roy, a representative from the Bioversity International sponsored Indigenous Partnership on Agroforestry, at a side event sponsored by the UN Development Program.

“And they have developed their own mechanisms to ensure that sites important for the community wellbeing are being revered.”

The international community should not give them special “protected” status for the sole reason that they now see the environmental value. They should value equally the knowledge and rights of the indigenous communities.

“It shouldn’t be a lopsided way, where science dictates everything the government does,” said Roy, who is also a member of the Khasi tribe of Northeast India.

Even those within the conservation community agree. Bas Vershuuren is the co-chair of the IUCN specialist group on cultural and spiritual values of protected areas. He says by recognising sacred sites, conservation can be decentralised as opposed to the way it is currently practiced.

It could also help legitamise traditional knowledge in the modern arena, said Million Belay, the director of MELCA — an advocacy organisation working on community conservation and participatory mapping workshops in the Ethiopia’s Sheka forest. That might open young tribal members back to their own cultures.

“Traditionally, sacred places have been a medium for local people to communicate with their gods,” Belay said.

“Today, the youth don’t recognise these places. Due to the forces of modernisation, they consider these places satanic, demonic so they don’t go there. The value that they have for these places is eroding and that in turn erodes their connection to the environment.”

Working together with indigenous communities, meanwhile, could have implications far beyond the immediate protected area.

Many live in eco-regions critical for national provisions of clean water, biodiversity and carbon sequestration. For example, the Himalayas of Northeast India are considered ‘water-towers’ for floodplain population centers in Bangladesh and Eastern India.

“The Himalayas go up and then straight down, they are not undulating hills,” Roy said.

“If grazing in these highlands is not taken seriously, this could affect areas beyond this landscape.”

Development research, including that by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) on hunting traditions on the Indonesian islands of Seram and Kalimantan, is already heading toward including more indigenous voices and knowledge into more decision making.

In Seram, post-doctorate researcher, Masatoshi Sasaoka found that indigenous communities have temporary stays on hunting so that forest spirits can restore game populations. If local belief systems were not taken into consideration there, he said, conservation would be impossible.

In Kalimantan, a CIFOR-affiliated team found that hunters categorise the forest into a range of land types with different levels of take allowed on each.

Policymakers from across the globe first gathered in Brazil in 1992 to hammer out the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, a treaty aimed at trying to sustain the rich diversity of life on this planet. It has since been ratified by nearly 200 countries and includes a list of concrete goals known as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, including a commitment to try to conserve 17 percent terrestrial and inland water and 10 percent coastal and marine areas that are important for biodiversity and ecosystem services by the year 2020 (No. 11).

By discussing protection of sacred natural sites, policymakers at last week’s CBD meeting might move closer to reaching Aichi target No. 18, which calls for integrating and reflecting indigenous knowledge in the implementation of the convention.

CIFOR’s work on hunting traditions of indigenous communities is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests Trees and Agroforestry and is supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan.

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  • If you have been in contact with Cultural Survival, this has been a very difficult project to fulfill. It has been an uphill battle trying to save lands of religious importance for indigenous people. So it looks highly unlikely that this could double the amount of protected land worldwide. It is even more difficult to try to save the languages of indigenous people, and 90% of the endangered languages in the world, belong to indigenous people. So saving lands of religious importance for indigenous people seems like a very weak area.