Of Science And Religion - Can Spiritual Values Of Forests Inspire Conservation?

In his recent book EO Wilson advocates conserving half of the planet for one species (Homo sapiens) and the other half for the remaining millions of species. His list of “best places on the biosphere” worthy of saving include several sacred sites: the church forests of Ethiopia, the Western Ghats in India, natural areas of Bhutan, remnant forests in the Congo and Ghana, the redwoods of California, and the tepuis of Venezuela. All of these forests have spiritual value for the native people in the region, which has contributed to the safe-guarding of these landscapes more effectively than walls or monetary metrics. Sacred forests are a critical component of biodiversity conservation, yet remain difficult to account for in most western calculations of global biodiversity management. Such sacred regions have been fiercely protected by cultural and religious beliefs and taboos for many centuries. Further, many sacred sites are successfully maintained through traditional means of community-based conservation that do not require government or NGO oversight. In short, they represent a model of conservation success for the planet, especially in developing countries where conventional economic metrics may not be feasible and certainly may not be effective. These sites also house the majority of biodiversity for several billion people throughout Africa and Asia, and their stewardship is insured through the respect and leadership of religious stakeholders.

Recent assessments of forest ecosystems in developed countries prioritize the economic values of ecosystem services such as fresh water, carbon storage, foods and building materials, medicines, gas exchange, shade, soil conservation, and biodiversity habitat. For the first time, the IUCN World Congress in 2016 introduced two thematic sessions on how religion and spirituality can contribute to biodiversity conservation. The spiritual/cultural value of forests is not only critical in scope but also portends to have the greatest potential for significant international conservation success. But the question remains, how can we adequately measure the cultural/spiritual value of forests?

My colleague, Sinu Pallaty of Kerala University, India and I both work in sacred forests, one in the sacred groves of the Western Ghats, India (PAS) and the other in the church forests of Ethiopia (ML). We have observed that partnership with diverse stakeholders, such as religious leaders, and that prioritization of a local community’s spiritual values, has led to more successful global conservation than more conventional top-down conservation in these regions. Some two billion people live with a religious ethic that respects sacred forests as an integral part of their lives. We believe that a serious effort to create metrics for the spiritual value of forests, in addition to the existing economic values of ecosystem services that western governments deploy, would enhance conservation success. Similar to giving carbon credits to forest tracts, could there be incentives offered for number of prayers or diversity of all of God’s creatures that are preserved in sacred forests? Just as the leadership of Bhutan developed a country-wide value based on gross happiness instead of gross domestic product, perhaps countries like India and Ethiopia deserve global recognition for their conservation efforts that are measured by spirituality. If this were to be calculated, countries like India with 1.2 billion people, would benefit enormously from the success of their conservation efforts; and perhaps western countries might learn new practices about additional values of natural areas. After all, if American churches were surrounded by forests instead of cement parking lots, then their biodiversity stewardship would be significantly enhanced. And maybe the integration of science and religion through the creation of metrics for valuing forests through spiritual means would ultimately lead not to just greater conservation success, but an overall enhancement of our perceived quality of life.