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Interview: ‘Spiritual Communities Are Playing an Important Role in Conservation’

Interview: ‘Spiritual Communities Are Playing an Important Role in Conservation’

Photo: Arisa Chattasa/Unsplash

This interview follows a two-part series reported by Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty and Kabir Agarwal on how the values and aspirations of spiritually united communities have helped protect the black-necked crane in Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan.

New Delhi: The conservation of our natural riches and wild species inside national parks and protected areas is a fairly modern concept. But until then, and even today, many people have protected their environs with a shield created by a fabric of religious and cultural beliefs centred on certain species and locations.

Such beliefs have played a pivotal role across the world in erecting a natural boundary between humans and nature, to enable their peaceful coexistence.

In recognition of the power of such traditions in protecting nature, particularly those parts considered vulnerable, global organisations like the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have taken steps in the last few years to adopt them within their own conservation programmes.

One such is the formation of a Specialist Group on Religions, Spirituality, Environmental Conservation and Climate Justice (ReSpECC) by IUCN in 2015. The idea for ReSpECC is to implement a resolution, made at the World Conservation Congress at South Korea in 2012, “to work closely with faith-based organisations and networks to achieve its mission”.

Liza Zogib, a co-chair of the specialist group, spoke to The Wire Science about what the IUCN is working towards here. Excerpts from the email interview follow.

The questions are in bold.

What is your mandate as co-chair of the IUCN ReSpECC?

The IUCN Commissions are made up of thousands of ‘expert’ volunteers on various themes, who connect with each other, share resources, form partnerships, do joint projects, raise awareness and so forth. The IUCN ReSpECC … is one such thematic. It is a group of religious and spiritual groups, networks and individuals from all over the world, which is particularly active around events, such as the Climate and Biodiversity CoPs1, or other conservation events.

We organise interfaith dialogues, keep each other up to date with the many things going on, and hold the space for spirituality and conservation within IUCN itself.

For some years now, IUCN, through, ReSpECC has been engaging with religious groups to conserve species based on the religious and the cultural beliefs of various communities. Is it also involving any Indian religious leader(s) or religious ethos of any community in India to help protect sacred sites and sacred species within the country?

Yes, there are representatives from India in the group, too. We hope to do more concrete work in the country through IUCN in the coming four years, as IUCN is now building this thematic more systematically in its programme of work.

At the 2021 IUCN World Conservation Congress, we organised one of the ‘High Level Dialogues’ with spiritual leaders including Sadhvi Saraswati Bhagavati and Matthieu Ricard (from Shechen Monastery in Nepal), who were highly inspirational.

Also read: The Sacred Groves of Meghalaya

Liza Zogib. Photo: IUCN

Your NGO, DiversEarth, has also been individually working on conversing sacred sites and sacred species by engaging with spiritual and faith leaders in various parts of the world, including in Bhutan and Nepal. It is currently also creating an inventory of sorts of sacred sites of the Mediterranean region. Could you elaborate a bit on this work?

Yes, DiversEarth was specifically set up over 10 years ago to work at the very special interface between nature, culture and spirituality. This means working in collaboration and in support of indigenous, spiritual and rural communities, who protect nature and its gifts by the way they live their lives. Sacred sites and sacred species are elements of that.

So, for instance, we had been working for a number of years in the Mediterranean region, and have recently finished a first look at sacred sites in this very diverse region. We actually have a book coming out shortly based on that work, called Protected by Prayer: Sacred Natural Sites of the Mediterranean.

Through work like this, we want to highlight the fact that spiritual communities the world over are playing a very important role in conservation. In South Asia, too, sacred sites have got such a critical role to play in conservation – some are actively protecting lands, waters, species, etc. Many are places that educate and inspire others to follow suit. Many more worship natural areas which help us see how we must cherish our world. Unfortunately, many sacred sites are threatened – but that’s another story.

Currently, we are looking at sacred species and what the impact is of such species for conservation. The initial work is showing very interesting results.

In Bhutan, DiversEarth had engaged with the government as well, to work on sacred sites. Any specific work you want to mention here in this regard?

Yes, this was some years back, but Bhutan has a very special place in my heart. We worked with the Ministry of Cultural Resources and the National Museum on a sacred sites project there. What is amazing about Bhutan is its will, at all levels, to protect nature. And this is really inspired by its religious beliefs. Of course, there are challenges, but I really hope that Bhutan can maintain its protective policies so that it can remain like a beacon of hope for the world. Actually, the whole of Bhutan is a sacred site.

From your experience, do you think Bhutan can be called a good example to the world of finding a roadmap to protect sacred sites and species?

Indeed it can, and it does… I know Bhutan’s ‘Gross National Happiness’ index is something very challenging, but it sends the signal to the rest of the world – what is really important, after all?

It is more than just protecting sacred sites and sacred species. After all, all places are sacred, all species are sacred. But we humans have lost our way it seems – nothing is sacred at all, therefore we do not care, we don’t take responsibility. We just have to look at the chaos in the world. Transformation is needed – an inner transformation that will inform what we do outwardly.

Also read: A Story of Wolves and Lambs and a Holy Stupa

Black-necked cranes on the banks of the Nyamjang Chuu river, the wintering site of the birds in Zemithang. Photo: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty/The Wire Science

Every year, in Bhutan’s Probjhika valley, at a 400-year-old monastery, an annual festival takes place to celebrate the arrival of the endangered migratory black-necked crane. The bird has religious significance in Tibetan Buddhism, the religion that the locals follow. The festival has also proved to be a huge attraction for foreign tourists and a means of livelihood to the locals, through tourism and related trade. Do you think a festival can, therefore, be a potent conservation tool?

I definitely do. I have been to Phobjhika valley – a wonderful place. Festivals are expressions of culture and spirituality, the breakdown of which sometimes contributes to the breakdown of our connections with nature, which, in turn, leads to non-mindfulness, non-caring and all the rest of it.

Everything is connected. Festivals and rituals related to nature are poignant reminders of our interconnectedness. They are very important.

Could religious belief among indigenous people alone be a conversation tool? If not, what must we work on simultaneously to make it so?

Behind cultural expressions like festivals, songs, dances, art, masks, etc. are the beliefs and values of people. It all starts here. It’s important to recognise and acknowledge our indigenous brothers and sisters around the world when we think of the protection of nature. They are the original conservationists. Over 80% of the world’s biodiversity is found in the lands and territories of indigenous peoples and local communities – which speaks volumes about how they live.

And how they live is informed by what they believe. We are part of nature, there is no separation. So, what we do to nature, we do to ourselves. Our indigenous communities remind us of this.

The interview is part of a series funded by the Fellowship for Environment Journalists grant of the US-based Society of Environment Journalists (SEJ) to study religious beliefs as a conservation tool.

  1. Conference of Parties

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