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Sacred forests

Updated Wednesday 3rd November 2010

Martin Palmer is from the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC). He is joined by the Saving Species team to explore the role religion can play in conservation

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Copyright The Open University


Presenter:  Martin, tell me a little bit about the role of ARC.

Well the Alliance of Religions and Conservation is perhaps surprisingly a secular organisation.  But we were brought into existence – we’re a sort of younger sister of WWF International – we were brought into existence precisely to help two worlds that didn’t even know the other ones existed speak to each other.  The worlds of religions, who are major landowners, major owners of media, they run 50% of schools around the world, and the worlds of conservation and the environment, who had not appreciated both the, if you like, the business of religion in terms of what religions actually own, purchase, run etc, but also I think had failed to realise that just giving people information, data, is never going to actually make anybody change the way they live.  That only happens through two sources really, through the arts and through religion, and very often those two are synonymous anyway.  So we exist to create partnerships which could not happen otherwise.

Well give me some examples of some of those partnerships around the world with different faiths.

Martin:  Well, a very good one, which picks up on this Ethiopian Forest topic, is that we have a partnership with the World Bank and with Oxford University to study and to help protect the sacred forests around the world.  Around about 8% of the habitual surface of the planet belongs to the major faiths that we work with, and in many, many cases the areas that they have their sacred buildings in or their holy wells or their springs or their mountains have been protected simply because they were sacred.  Now this is coming under more and more threat, particularly with the introduction of things like Red, with the pricing of leaving forests alone, suddenly people are wanting to claim: ‘Oh that bit of forest is mine’.

So we’re helping the major faiths map the forest they have, study what we call ‘the nature’ in it, or ‘the creation’ within it, some people call it biodiversity, and helping them to then protect that by having international certification for this, which we’re working with RUCN.  Another example would be that in China, we’re working with the Daoists and the Buddhists of China, and the Chinese Government.  This may come as some surprise to people.  Here we have a communist government who only 40 years ago or so was trying to wipe out every trace of religion.  Now the Chinese Government is actually saying to us would we help negotiate a deal with their faiths, because nowhere else does a sense of Chinese culture really still remain, and their feeling is that unless they can reinforce that sense of Chinese culture, particularly in its attitude towards nature, then China is just going to rip apart its landscape for profit.

Presenter:  So give me some examples of creatures or habitats that are benefiting now?

Martin:  Well the saiga would be an interesting one, but a very threatened one, this extraordinary antelope in Mongolia, which traditionally Mongolian Buddhism banned any hunting of.  That of course fell apart when Mongolia was communist for over 70 years, and one of the first actions of the Mongolian Buddhists when they were able to reconstitute themselves in the late ‘90s was to reintroduce that ban.  Probably too late but it’s an attempt.  Another example would be a partnership that we’re developing from the Altai along the Himalayas with Buddhist and Hindu organisations to protect the snow leopard.  And that’s a really big one.  That’s one that we’re doing in partnership with WWF USA and ourselves.

But then I think also a very fundamental one is this whole issue of traditional medicines.  Not just Chinese, there are other traditional medicines that are endangering species by the demand for rare species, and what we can do there is that we can actually bring in, if you like, a spiritual, mystical dimension.  So, for example, in China the issue there is that you take traditional Chinese medicine to rebalance the yin and yang within you, the two opposite forces.  And what Daoism has now said, unequivocally, is that if you use an endangered species then you cannot be healed by this, because you are destroying the yin yang balance of the world.  So sometimes we’re able to go perhaps a little deeper into, if you like, the reasons why people do things and strike a cord there.

Presenter:  I think that’s interesting what you say about the spiritual side because nowadays we’re encouraged to think that conserving animals and plants is only important because they have a monetary value, and you’re suggesting that we should move away from that and actually value things for their own intrinsic value?

Absolutely.  I mean, again, to use religious language, I do feel that this sort of dreadful language of Ecosystem deliverables is a Faustian bind.  We are selling the soul, not our souls!  We’re selling the souls of other species in order to justify economic development, and I think we are in great danger to be honest because once you start, for example, if, as was being articulated at Copenhagen last year, we only say the Amazon has significance because it’s a carbon sink, in other words what we’re basically saying is, within the religious perspective, the good Lord God created the whole of the Amazon so we could have cars.  And then the nonsense of that strikes you when you put it into that context.

Because in a religious perspective we would say no, we need to protect the Amazon because God has created thousands of species there, fantastic habitats, and God loves those as much as God loves us, and therefore there is an integrity in the Amazon that we are called upon to protect.  And this of course then raises the whole issue of what theologically and cosmologically do we understand to be our role.  And at the moment, ironically, so much of the environmental movement has actually taken the Judeo-Christian story that we are the summation of creation, have then removed God, so we end up as being the only reason for creation.  Where as in fact what is happening in most faiths is they’re looking at our role and saying, you know, maybe we’ve overstepped our significance.

Presenter:  We’ve been abroad; you’ve taken us to China, you’ve taken us to Mongolia.  What’s happening closer to home? What’s Christianity doing? I mean indeed other faiths in the United Kingdom?

Martin:  Well Christianity in particular is addressing the issue of the biodiversity through churchyards, and for many, many years we’ve helped run a programme called the living churchyards, and there are now 6,500 churchyards across the UK where they don’t mow the lawn as though it was a suburban, they don’t mow the graveyard as though it was a suburban lawn, they mow it perhaps once every, twice every year, and they obviously mow the bits that you have to get to, to get to the church.  But keeping churchyards as essentially wild, putting bird boxes in, allowing wet areas to remain and so forth, ensuring that the trees that are there, that are replanted are indigenous species, and we put actually as much land under local community management through the churchyard schemes as the Peak National Park.  So that’s a really good one.

I think there’s also the work that’s being done by every major faith.  We’ve now got eco-mosques, eco-gurdwaras for the Sikhs, eco-temples for the Hindus, eco-churches.  It’s slow but it’s coming, and of course there is a real problem, where exactly do you put solar panels on Canterbury Cathedral?

This is all very impressive Martin but of course I can hear people saying now, well Catholicism is the most important religion in the Amazonian Rain Forest and Islam is a very, very important faith in the Indonesian Rain Forests as well. Those are disappearing at an alarming rate, where’s religion when we need it then?

Well I think if we go to the Amazon, in particular.  The Amazon is a Catholic Forest, I mean it is within bounds of Catholic countries, and I think there we have a very interesting issue of a religion that is going, having to grow its vision.  Because the role of the Catholic Church to a very great extent since the ‘60s has been to protect the poor and to protect the indigenous peoples – you’ve had this whole rise of liberation theology, Marxist Christian theology if you like. But what that didn’t do was understand the rest of creation as being part of that vision.  Now that’s changing but it’s a slow change, but it is happening, and in a sense one of the exciting movements is an awareness say amongst the Jesuits that the Amazon is a Catholic issue, and that the protection of the environment is about social justice as well as about biodiversity.  But it’s slow and it’s late, but hopefully not too late.

In Indonesia, very interesting, when the old regime fell in the late 90s, the pesantrens, which are the Islamic boarding schools, which educate about 80% of the rural youth in Indonesia – Indonesia being the largest Muslim country in the world – were given millions of hectares of rain forest, in order to make money to run the schools, and these are not extremist schools by any standard.  So we moved in with IFEES (the Islamic Foundation for the Environment and Environmental Sciences), with London Zoo and with the World Bank and Conservation International, and over the years a programme has developed to help the pesantrens manage their forest ecologically but also economically.  So, and that’s spreading quite rapidly.  In fact far more rapidly than I would have ever expected, but so often what we’re up against is the economic power of the West, which simply does not understand the spiritual, religious, traditional values.

You’ve got a struggle here then haven’t you between economics and spiritual?

Martin:  Absolutely.

So are you hopeful about the future of religion as a conservation tool?  That’s a very blunt way of putting it.

Martin:  No, no, but let’s be blunt.  Yes, I am, and I am for one simple reason. After Copenhagen, when we realised that if we put our faith in governments and into governmental agencies we might as well just sort of go out and drown ourselves now, the rise of civil society, and of course religion is the oldest and the largest section of civil society, has been phenomenal.  And I’ve been working in this field for 25 years, in the last year we’ve been approached by more secular organisations and national governments than in the previous 25 years.  I think there is a realisation that we have tried to persuade people by data, nobody’s ever been converted by a pie chart.  We’ve tried to institute international agreements with governments that last about three years.  We’ve built our hope on institutions which might last a decade.  And now maybe it’s time to turn to institutions, the most sustainable human institutions in the world, the major religions.  Most of which have been around for a couple of millennia.

Martin, thank you very much.  That’s Martin Palmer from ARC.  That’s the Alliance of Religions and Conservation.






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