Mapping the sacred: towards a global map of sacred natural sites

Authors and Affiliations: 

Shonil A Bhagwat

The Open University and the University of Oxford, UK


Global mapping of sacred natural sites, which are indigenous and community-conserved areas that have spiritual importance to people, is currently being undertaken on online platforms such as Indigenous and Community-Conserved Areas (ICCA) registry hosted at the Unoted Nation's Environment Programme - World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), Cambridge, UK.  The ambition behind these initiatives is to map, assess, visualise, analyse and ultimately conserve biocultural diversity – “the diversity of life in all of its manifestations: biological, cultural and linguistic, which are interrelated (and possibly coevolved) within a complex socio-ecological adaptive system” – which is being lost at an unprecedented rate (Maffi 2007).  Sacred natural sites are considered a ‘parallel’ network of nature reserves, these areas are important for conservation of biodiversity, hosting a variety of habitats and species and forming hubs of cultural activity.  Yet, there is very little information on their spatial distribution, their role in conservation of biocultural diversity and the rich cultural traditions that are associated with these sites.  Dubbed as ‘nodes of nature and culture’ these sites have the potential to provide hubs for conservation of biocultural diversity.  The conventional mapping has limitations for the mapping of sacred natural sites because there are hundreds of thousands of these sites distributed all over the world.  Also, these sites are not just points or polygons on the map, but they are spaces rich in traditional rituals, myths, folklores, stories, narratives, performances and offerings.  New approaches informed by ‘citizen science’ to mapping and visual representation of sacred natural sites could be potentially suitable for creating a platform and repository for a wide variety of data on these sites.  The talk will explore a variety of challenges encountered in the global mapping of sacred natural sites, examine issues of secrecy and sensitivity of information on sacred natural sites, and discuss mechanisms for free and prior informed consent (FPIC). Options of mapping these sites and keeping them secret will be weighed against each other from the perspectives of different stakeholders.