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Sacred Natural Sites Unprotected Within Protected Areas

BARCELONA, Spain, October 7, 2008 (ENS) – A mountain, a spring, a cave, a grove of trees – thousands of sacred natural sites are at risk around the world although many are within formal protected areas, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature warned today, releasing a new set of guidelines for managers of these special areas at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Barcelona.

More than 8,000 of the world’s decision makers in sustainable development: from governments, nongovernmental organizations, business, the United Nations and academia are gathered in Barcelona through October 14 for the World Conservation Congress, which happens only once every four years.

The guidelines are a contribution from the IUCN Task Force on the Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas and UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program to support the efforts of faith groups and indigenous and traditional peoples for the conservation of their sacred natural sites – areas of land or water that have special spiritual significance.


The San Francisco Peaks in Arizona’s
Coconino National Forest are sacred to
at least a dozen Native Indian Tribes.
(Photo credit unknown)

“Natural areas that are held to be sacred by peoples are found all across the Earth,” the guidelines state. “This is a widespread phenomenon to be found in almost every country. There are considered to be many thousands of distinct belief systems around the globe and many have ethics related to conservation.”

“IUCN has become a key player in the effort to protect sacred sites and holy lands of the planet,” says Gonzalo Oviedo, IUCN senior adviser on social policy.

“We run projects in the field with custodians of sacred places, we support them at the policy level, we advocate for their recognition and support and we promote better understanding of their values,” said Oviedo.

Entitled, “Sacred Natural Sites – Guidelines for Protected Area Managers,” the book focuses on recognizing, planning and managing sacred natural sites within and near protected areas.


Natural Park of Serra de Montsant, Catalonia,
Spain (Photo courtesy Parks of Catalonia)

“Sacred natural sites can be the abode of deities, nature spirits and ancestors, or are associated with hermits, prophets, saints and visionary spiritual leaders,” the guidelines state. “They can be feared or they can be benign. They can be areas for ceremony and contemplation, prayer and meditation.”

There are now 108,000 protected areas worldwide encompassing 11.75 million square miles, an area greater than the African continent, but the definition and practice of protection is not uniform.

“It must be acknowledged,” the guidelines admit, “that many protected areas have been superimposed over the traditional use areas of local communities, indigenous and traditional peoples, and mainstream faiths. In setting up protected areas around the world, the values and importance of sacred places and traditional uses have often been ignored, thus affecting the fundamental rights of local cultures.”


Grave markers in one of the sacred
kaya forests of the Mijikenda tribes
of Kenya. (Photo courtesy UNEP)

Indigenous peoples have been excluded or forcibly removed from their traditional territories and separated from the sacred natural sites they have cared for generations.

“This situation, sometimes based on opposing world views, has many times led to conflict and mistrust, and created obstacles to the development of constructive relationships and cooperation between indigenous or traditional peoples, local communities, faith groups and conservation agencies,” the guidelines say.

The 44 guidelines and 16 case studies from around the world focus primarily on the sacred places of indigenous communities, yet they also are relevant for the sacred sites of mainstream faiths.

“From the ground up, working from place to place, we are building bridges with custodians of sacred lands of indigenous and traditional peoples as well as of religious and monastic communities,” said Oviedo.

“Alliances between many such groups and conservation are based on strong common values and a shared commitment for the planet,” he said.

The guidelines were first drafted at an international workshop held in Kunming, China in 2003.

They were extensively discussed and revised at the World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa in 2003, and at the International Symposium on Conserving Cultural and Biological Diversity: The Role of Sacred Natural Sites and Cultural Landscapes, in Tokyo, Japan in 2005. Then they were restructured and supporting material was added to achieve their current format.

After four years of field testing they will be re-evaluated and revised.

Around the world there is growing interest in, and recognition of the importance of, sacred natural sites as critical elements to both biological and cultural preservation, in view of the accelerating loss of biocultural diversity as an unintended by-product of globalization, the IUCN said today.

At the Congress, four workshops will discuss enhancements to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. They will consider the role of UNESCO World Heritage sites in supporting management effectiveness, tourism and biodiversity conservation within protected areas. Side meetings will focus on World Heritage marine sites and cultural landscapes.

To view the new guidelines, click here [data.iucn.org].

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