Sacred natural sites – the oldest protected areas of the planet

This is the first in a new series of posts on protection and management of Sacred Natural Sites and some focus on cultural tourism related to such sites.

Sacred natural sites occur at a variety of scales. They can be as small as a single tree or rock formation, or can extend to an entire mountain range. In some cases, whole landscapes are regarded by a community as sacred, containing within them areas of more special sacred focus.

One of the most salient forms of culture-based conservation has been the identification and protection of sacred natural sites, which often harbour valuable biodiversity and protect key ecosystems. Indigenous, local and mainstream cultures and spiritual traditions with their respective world views created protected areas long before the advent of the Yellowstone National Park model on which current protected area legislation, policy and practice are mostly based worldwide. Sacred natural sites are indeed the oldest protected areas of the planet.

Yet, unfortunately, many sacred natural sites are at risk. They are subject to a wide range of pressures and threats, external and internal, such as illegal extraction of timber and wildlife, impacts from extractive industries’ operations, encroachment by outsiders, disrespectful tourism, poverty and population dynamics, degradation of neighbouring environments, reduction of the availability of lands and resources for traditional peoples and so on.

Sacred natural sites have also been inadvertently integrated in legally declared protected areas by governments, without recognition of the local community values and of the traditional beliefs, practices, skills and knowledge that have sustained the associated locations, cultures and resources. At times, management direction has prevented access to, and use of, these areas by traditional communities, resulting in violation of indigenous rights, the creation of mistrust and animosity and a lack of local support for the effective management of such sites and areas.

Whether of indigenous, local or mainstream traditions, the management of sacred natural sites in legally protected areas is in its infancy.

Action is needed for culturally appropriate sacred natural site protection and management. Current conservation agencies and local traditional communities should receive the support they need to work together to face the threats affecting sacred natural sites. Local and indigenous traditional communities should be supported with economic and other resources to assist in their efforts in preserving the environment.

Protected area agencies should recognise the cultural and spiritual dimension of sacred natural sites included within their designated boundaries, and recognise the rights and interests of the communities concerned to continue using and managing those sacred sites as places for their cultural and spiritual realisation and reverence. National and international organisations should also recognise the skills and knowledge that local and indigenous communities have in managing the resources and areas associated with sacred natural sites. Furthermore, effective action in support of the preservation and effective management of sacred natural sites will have a large impact on enhancing biodiversity conservation, as well as on the long-term vitality of the cultures that have cared for them.

Come back regularly as we will add new posts in this series covering a broad spectrum of related issues.

Contact Lorton Consulting about help and support for communities and protected area managers, especially those with sacred sites located within the boundaries of legally established protected areas.

With acknowledgement to IUCN and UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme.

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