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New Initiative Will Conserve Sacred Sites Rich in Biodiversity

Reprinted with kind permission from ENS newsletter 20 March 2006-06-24

CURITIBA, Brazil, March 19, 2006 (ENS) -
The realization that conservation of indigenous sacred places also conserves Earth's embattled biological diversity is the inspiration for a new international initiative to safeguard ancient sacred natural sites.

The new project, backed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and indigenous peoples' groups such as the Foundation created by Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu, has secured preliminary funding from a multi-billion dollar development fund, the Global Environment Facility. Menchu said, "It may seem accidental, but is not accidental, that where indigenous peoples live is where the greatest biological diversity, the diversity of nature, exists too. The values on which indigenous peoples have built our complex systems are founded in the ethical, spiritual and sacred nature that links our peoples with the whole work of creation." "This is why we demand the formal recognition of our conservation efforts, of our protected territories, of our sacred places, of the ethical values that support our lifestyles," she said.

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1992 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala (Photo courtesy Fundacion Rigoberta Menchu Tum)

The project, Conservation of Biodiversity Rich Sacred Natural Sites, will be publicly unveiled at the 8th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) taking place in Curitiba, Brazil, between March 20 and 31. Many of the mountains, forests and islands, desert oases, lakes, rivers and groves recognized by indigenous peoples as having cultural and spiritual significance also shelter endangered and threatened species. Experts have selected several such sites as pilot ecosystems of global importance. Included in the list of pilot projects is a site in Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert where it is said the sun was born, and a network of skull caves in the Kakamega forests in Kenya, revered by Taita and Luhya people. Other pilot sites are Mount Ausangate in the Peru's Vilcanota mountain range, a group of islands in Guinea Bissau whose beaches and mangroves are used exclusively for rituals, and sacred forest groves in the India's Kodagu District.


Mount Ausangate stands 6,380 meters (20,905 feet) in the Peruvian Andes, towering over hot springs and glacier-fed multicolored lakes. (Photo by Norman Benton courtesy Still Pictures/UNEP)

"There is clear and growing evidence of a link between cultural diversity and biodiversity, between reverence for the land and a location and a breadth of often unique and special plants and animals," said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer. "Sadly sacred sites are also under threat and there is an urgent need to help local, indigenous and traditional peoples safeguard their heritage which in turn can do much to conserve the biological and genetic diversity upon which we all depend," he said. In 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, governments committed themselves to reverse the rate of loss of biodiversity by 2010.

"Conserving sacred sites and their biological richness can play a major role in achieving the 2010 target and perhaps act as beacons from where good and sustainable management practices can be exported to nearby areas and beyond," said Toepfer. Supporters, which include a wide range of conservation organizations, other United Nations bodies and governments, are now raising the over $1.7 million needed to start action on the ground. Gonzalo Oviedo of IUCN-the World Conservation Union, one of the organizations involved, said, "Communities managing such sites have made many efforts locally to try and boost the prospects for such sites, but to date global action has been far from the level needed to ensure a global shift in their fortunes. This project aims to cement a wide alliance and mobilize the international attention so urgently needed in this neglected field."

A series of side events on biodiversity and indigenous peoples is being held at the 8th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity, opening Monday in Curitiba. Visit:

Sacred Sites - the Pilot Network



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A Bijagos man at a festival in the Baloma-Bijagos archipelago (Photo courtesy

The Boloma-Bijagos
This archipelago of 88 islands in Guinea-Bissau encompasses diverse ecosystems - mangroves with intertidal zones, palm forests, dry and semi-dry forests, secondary and degraded forests, coastal savanna, sand banks and aquatic zones. Over the 100,000 hectare, many rivers discharge nutrient rich freshwater into the sea which supports Nile crocodiles, hippopotamus and an abundance of crustaceans, molluscs and fish. To the Bijagos community, certain areas are off limits or access is confined to those who have completed their ceremonial duties. In many of the sites certain activities are banned such as sexual relations, burials, the shedding of blood, and construction of permanent settlements. "These traditional practices of the Bijagos that limit periodically the free access to certain areas and their natural resources effectively assists in the preservation of the sites for flora and fauna," said Oviedo. "An interesting overlapping is that the most valued sites for biodiversity also happen to be the most sacred ones."


Two sites have been earmarked in Kenya: The Tiriki ceremonial sites in the west and the Taita skull caves in the coastal province.

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The Kakamega indigenous forest in Kenya (Photo by Charlotte Thege courtesy Still Pictures/UNEP)

The Tiriki site
This site is of great interest to scientists as they represent the remains of a rainforest of which much has been lost. The Tiriki community holds circumcision ceremonies in the forest. The initiates are bathed in a stream that runs through the woods and then secluded in the forest until they are healed. Experts believe that the ceremonial sites harbor unique plant and animal species which have benefited from the protection afforded by clan elders and traditional customs and beliefs. But part of the forest has been seized by loggers who fell the indigenous trees without permits. As part of the pilot project, scientists plan to fully document the plants, birds and reptiles present in the Tiriki forest, as well as undertaking socio-cultural surveys among local communities. In collaboration with the National Museums of Kenya, it is planned to list key sites and assess the potential for ecotourism.

The skull caves of the Taita
These are located in the Eastern Arc, one of the world's biodiversity hot spots and home to unique and rare species, including coffee. Skulls of male members of the tribe and important people are placed in the caves, known locally as Pango. The enormous number of rituals and taboos surrounding the caves has allowed small but important segments of the indigenous forest to survive on hilltops such as Mbololo and Chawia.



The Kodagu District
Located in the Western Ghats of Karnataka State, India, is something like the sacred grove capital of the world. The groves also harbor the richest biodiversity of the area. The district consists of deep forests associated with flower gardens on mountain slopes and paddy cultivation in the valleys. Sacred groves and sacred water bodies form the center of local peoples' livelihoods and rituals associated with farming. The land tenure system for the groves is unique and while ownership is within the State Forest Department, recent government initiatives have specifically recognized the role of local people in management of the sacred grove.

Latin America



An old bridge in the Wirikuta region, Real de Catorce, San Luis Potosi, Mexico. (Photo courtesy CalState-LA)

Wirikuta, in the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico, is one of the most biologically rich and diverse deserts in the world, and one of three Mexican sites included in the pilot program. Said to be where the sun was born, Wirikuta covers some 140,000 hectares and is inhabited by 70 percent of the birds and 60 percent of the mammals of the desert. It is on the eastern edge of an annual pilgrimage of the Huichol "jicareros" where novices eat the sacred cacti that allow them to communicate with deities and ancestors. The site is under threat from uncontrolled tourism, agriculture, overexploitation of underground aquifers, hunting, and illegal traffic in wildlife.
Tiburon, or Taheojc Island
In Mexico's Gulf of California, is part of an area known as the Sarcocaulescent Desert. The island, noted for its rich wildlife including cercidium trees and shrubs, deer, birds and invertebrates, is the last home of the Seri people. The island is central to their view of the universe expressed in stories featuring spirits and deities centered around the heart of the island. Economic and political problems threaten the Seri way of life and also the island's extraordinary biodiversity.
The Sacred Caves of the Wind and Fertility
An eight hectare site sacred to the Tenek, Nahua and Pame people of Huastecan region in the state of San Luis Potosi, Mexico. The forests linked with the site have been devastated by cattle grazing. Only a small patch remains that is a reservoir for medicinal plants.


The Cayambe area,
Located in the eastern Range of the Ecuadorean Andes, harbors a wide range of ecosystems including humid cloud forests, alpine grasslands and humid tropical forests. It is inhabited by the threatened Andean condor. The area has great spiritual significance to the Cayanpi and other peoples of the region, with several revered mountains, lakes and rivers. One of the sacred sites is Puntayachi where local people celebrate the cycles of the sun. Other rituals are associated with the appearance in the sky of the Southern Cross.


The Vilcanota Spiritual Park
Located in southern Peru is part of the Vilcanota mountain range and home to the Q'eros people.
Puma runs through Manu National Park

Puma runs through the Manu National Park, Peru (Photo by Heinz Plenge courtesy Still Pictures/UNEP)

The Vilcanota sub-region is an ice-capped mountain range of the Peruvian Andes encompassing 469 glaciers in an area of 539 square kilometers. The area is a hot spot of biodiversity, with a large number of native and unique species including wild vicunas, pumas, Andean geese, and important tree species. Local people believe that values such as the treatment of mountains as divinities have allowed for the maintenance of a strong cultural identity that approaches nature on the basis of concepts of relatedness to the natural world. It also an area of concentrated native agrobiodiversity and livestock populations. A wide range of rituals are linked to ecosystem conservation some of which are connected with cocoa, native potatoes and wild flowers, and some involve banning the exploitation of key pasture lands.

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