• Ethiopia
    A conservation wall in Ethiopia helps protect biodiversity around spiritual centers. (© 2012 Matthew Jelling)

From the sacred church forests of Ethiopia to the revered groves of Bhutan, political and religious leaders around the world are working to conserve remaining forest canopies—a fragmented environment so expansive and critical to life on Earth that it’s often referred to as the “eighth continent.” In an article published this summer in BioScience, Dr. Meg Lowman of the California Academy of Sciences along with Dr. Palatty Allesh Sinu of the Central University of Kerala in India recognize the unique success of preserving forests for their cultural and religious significance. Together Lowman and Sinu urge for stronger global recognition of spiritual values as a critical metric for safeguarding forest biodiversity.

“For Western scientists conducting research in developing countries, it can be difficult to break from our typical assessments for sustainability,” says Lowman. “But in order to champion conservation, we need to work within the value framework of the people closest to these forests.”

Sacred, Sustainable Forests

Lowman is no stranger to unlikely partnerships. With over three decades spent mapping forest diversity and pioneering the field of canopy science, she is relentless in her pursuit of bottom-up conservation solutions that originate with local stakeholders. Since 2009, she has partnered with Christian Orthodox clergy in Ethiopia, whose “church forests”—tiny swaths of trees clustered around religious centers that harbor rich ecological diversity—comprise some of the only land still untouched by agriculture. Lowman’s team has collaborated with locals to build rock walls enclosing these forests that protect against further destruction. She has also worked tirelessly to empower local Sunday school attendees to conduct their own biodiversity surveys—helping them understand the diversity of life they’re working to preserve as future church forest ambassadors.

“In Ethiopia, nearly one-third of the population attends services at these churches,” says Lowman. “For scientists, it’s important to consider that religious beliefs are often accessible, effective avenues for inspiring local conservation.”

Today, global forests are increasingly evaluated by the benefits humans obtain from them standing, rather than as cut timber—a critical advance. Dr. Gretchen Daily, Academy fellow and Bing Professor of Environmental Science at Stanford University, has been at the forefront of quantifying these benefits in what’s known as the Natural Capital Project—even linking improved mental health to the accessibility of nature in urban areas.

“More and more, people are awakening to the tremendous life-supporting benefits of nature and incorporating these values into policy and management,” says Daily. “Many countries now pay people to protect and restore forests for their benefits of drinking water and flood security. But the values of nature most enduring in human culture are spiritual. We need to recognize this explicitly and in meaningful ways.”

In Ethiopia, services provided by church forests include timber, clean water, medicine, firewood, building materials, and other consumer products. These services are all aligned with metrics of physical well-being. To date, no one has successfully incorporated spiritual value—which is often of utmost importance to local stakeholders—into global assessments.

Building Bridges

In India, a nation where most people practice Hinduism, forests are protected under the auspices of the religion’s moral obligation to worship the natural world and conserve its resources. Today, over one million sacred Indian forests remain intact—a tribute to the power of religiously sanctioned protections.

Lowman and Sinu warn that global conservation policies are too often modeled on Western values rather than prioritizing those of local stakeholders, making conservation less engaging and effective on the ground. When a growing country experiences a stagnant economy with limited government resources, spiritual and mental health metrics could prove critical to conservation.

To establish spiritual value as a common metric, Lowman and Sinu’s suggestions are four-fold. First, top political leadership could expand upon the success of Bhutan, where local forest conservation measures were adopted into the country’s GNH, a measure of gross national happiness. Second, international bodies like the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization or the International Union for the Conservation of Nature could designate spiritual value as a definitive global metric for conservation. Third, issuing credits to regions where forest preservation is linked to improved health could motivate bottom-up solutions to top-down initiatives. Finally, nations strongly governed by religion should consider offering spiritual leaders a carbon-credit equivalent for actively incorporating conservation into their teachings—converting this value into the more popularly held metric of dollars and cents.

“The world’s sacred sites are precious,” says Lowman, “and I’m optimistic we can use these emerging case studies—and potential solutions—as models for bridging spiritual doctrine with effective conservation across the globe.”

About Research at the California Academy of Sciences

The Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences is at the forefront of efforts to understand two of the most important topics of our time: the nature and sustainability of life on Earth. Based in San Francisco, the Institute is home to more than 100 world-class scientists, state-of-the-art facilities, and nearly 46 million scientific specimens from around the world. The Institute also leverages the expertise and efforts of more than 100 international Associates and 400 distinguished Fellows. Through expeditions around the globe, investigations in the lab, and analysis of vast biological datasets, the Institute’s scientists work to understand the evolution and interconnectedness of organisms and ecosystems, the threats they face around the world, and the most effective strategies for sustaining them into the future. Through innovative partnerships and public engagement initiatives, they also guide critical sustainability and conservation decisions worldwide, inspire and mentor the next generation of scientists, and foster responsible stewardship of our planet.

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