When we care for it...preserving cultural and spiritual values of forests

12 July 2011

Everywhere in the world people care for and try to preserve the things they value.

What is considered valuable is relative to the socio-cultural context, and often things that are of great significance and deeply precious for some individuals and groups are not for others. There are things and places that are priceless because they refer to our identity and our sense of being and belonging.

We are apt to store worn and decrepit items as though they were precious treasures because they have been in the family for generations. We visit places we consider sacred and we pay respect to their genius loci to be healed, have questions answered, or to achieve some spiritual benefit.

Forested landscapes very much belong to this category as they often bear a deep significance, inspire affection and respect, reinforce cultural identity and are vital for spiritual wellbeing.

“Landscapes, our innermost being reflected” was the strapline used for the European Landscape Convention. This phrase very much refers to the fact that “no human society can exist without the cultural and spiritual values that define our world views and shape our interaction with the natural environment” (Joseph Maria Mallarach in Values of Protected Landscapes and Seascapes).

We need only look at some of the greatest writers and philosophers of our times to see that woods and forested landscapes hold a great significance for many cultures across the globe.

For many cultures there is no separation between the spiritual and the material. People believe that spiritual realities exist in animals, woods, mountains and natural phenomena, and that humans, nature and the whole expanse of our universe are interconnected. Sacred natural sites are probably the oldest form of nature conservation and in many countries they may cover similar or greater surface areas than officially established protected areas.

There are many illustrations of how cultural and spiritual values have been the reason for sparing forested landscapes from deforestation, allowing local communities to directly benefit from forest activities. Last December, in the framework of a Forests Dialogue on investing in locally controlled forests, I had the chance to visit one, the Arabuko Sokoke Forest, part of the Kaya Kinondo reserve, located on the north coast of Kenya. The reserve is managed collectively by neighbouring communities, Nature Kenya and National Museums of Kenya.

Local communities consider the Kayas to be sacred forests and depend on them for fuelwood, food, medicinal herbs and building materials. Conservationists value them as irreplaceable relics of a once-extensive East African coastal forest. To preserve their forests from rampant deforestation (logging and urban encroachment) local communities in the late 1990s successfully approached the National Museum of Kenya seeking help to manage and preserve their forests. Through this collaboration, the Kaya Kinondo Ecotourism Project was created. The communities around Arabuko Sokoke Forest during our visit last December told us that, thanks to activities related to tourism, beekeeping and butterfly farming, they are now self-sufficient and can decline the “offers” made by builders and loggers.

Often, when allowed direct control and empowered to build upon the cultural and spiritual value of forests, local communities can receive greater benefits from managing their natural resources than they can get from what are often complex and detached aid schemes. If aid schemes take into account and respect what people value, this ensures local people have a sense of belonging in the initiative, and so success is all the more likely.
 

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