Keeping the faith in conservation

September 20, 2018
By Anjana Vencatesan

  • With an attempt to strengthen ties between religious communities and conservationists, the Society for Conservation Biology has proposed best practices for interacting with faith-based leaders and communities.
  • Sacred sites across the world are gaining increased importance as units of biodiversity conservation and are being seen as a nucleus around which conservation can be sustained effectively.
  • The Society for Conservation Biology is a global community of professionals dedicated to conserving biodiversity. The guidelines are the outcome of a survey of the Society’s members conducted by the Religion and Conservation Biology Working Group.

Can science and faith cooperate for conservation biology?

The prevailing and dominant notion is that science and faith are two distinct units that do not and cannot have a common meeting point. However, that reality is different and it is impossible to exist in silos is the message that the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) is trying to convey through its recent publication, “Guidelines for Interacting with Faith-Based Leaders and Communities”. The SCB is a global community of professionals dedicated to conserving biodiversity which has developed these guidelines as best practices to “strengthen the collaboration between faith traditions and conservation.”

It is important to acknowledge the presence of various forms of faith in the world and take it into account while planning conservation projects. According to a 2010 survey by Pew Research Center, 84 percent of the world’s population — that is about eight in ten people — identify with a religious group. The survey also indicates that of the 16 percent that identify as religiously unaffiliated, many hold religious or spiritual beliefs such as a belief in a higher form of existence.

Sacred sites may be important for biodiversity conservation

Another reason which necessitates the need to involve faith based communities is that many “sacred natural sites” require the permission, sanction and cooperation of the community and faith leader in order to access and conduct research. Sacred sites across the world are gaining increased importance as units of biodiversity conservation and are being seen as a nucleus around which conservation can be sustained effectively.

The Sacred Natural Sites Initiative (SNSI) of the Smithsonian Institute is aimed at developing a community and custodian led conservation of sacred sites. The Sacred Groves of Epirus (SAGE) project looks at the mountainous region of Epirus in Greece where activities are prohibited or strictly regulated by religious belief systems.

In India, the most well-known example of sacred natural sites are sacred groves that have a pan-Indian presence of varying sizes and types and are known by local names such as deorais in Maharashtra, sarnas in Bihar, kyntangs in Meghalaya and oraans, kenkris and vanis in Rajasthan.

Institutional efforts to conserve sacred sites are aimed at increasing the capacity of the local community and at sensitising researchers in approaching projects in sacred sites in addition to achieving short term conservation goals.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) constituted a specialist group, the Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas (CSVPA), which in 2008 published best practices guidelines for protected area management. The Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), founded in 1995, is a secular body that links faith communities to environmental groups thus helping communities develop and implement conservation programmes.

The ARC has projects worldwide and partners with several organisations including the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The Forum on Religion and Ecology (FORE) at Yale is an international multi-religious project that explores religious views and texts to apply them in environmental conservation. The project has the objective of making the study of religion and ecology an academic field in itself.

SCB’s guidelines

The Society of Conservation Biology’s proposed guidelines are the outcome of a survey of the Society’s members conducted by the Religion and Conservation Biology Working Group (RCBWG). The guidelines are framed as five stages — pre-engagement planning, initiating contact with faith-based community leaders, launching and implementing the project, closing the project and following up after closure — with each stage containing a series of dos and don’ts for conservationists.

The guidelines mention important aspects of project planning such as budgeting time for interacting with the community leader, understanding the community hierarchy (including gender roles) and its jurisdiction and communicating the socio-economic benefits of the conservation project in an accessible format.

The guidelines also caution against getting involved in local politics, discussing contentious issues that are contrary to the faith (such as anthropogenic causes of climate change) and deviating from the exit plan. These points are strengthened by real life examples given by the members that illustrate how to apply the guidelines on the ground and the SCB’s global presence means that there are examples from far and wide such as Cambodia, Myanmar, Nigeria and Papua New Guinea to name a few, and of course India.

Kit Magellan, editor-in-chief, Aquatic Invasions and member of the RCBWG, added that the biggest role of the guidelines in her opinion is to bridge the gap between quantitative and qualitative research and to provide a tool kit for researchers to address the gap themselves.

Talking about the specific case of India, Jame Schaefer, in Religious Studies and member of the RCBWG said, “Because a variety of faiths are practiced in India, where ecological problems and threats to endangered species and their habitats persist, conservation scientists and practitioners are wise to consider interacting with leaders and members of faith-based communities for their help and advocacy of scientists’ recommendations for resolving these problems.”

Magellan added, “India is so rich and varied in terms of ecosystems, religions and cultures that conflict between these factors is almost inevitable. Conversely, Indian people have been intricately linked to the land and shown cooperation between different faiths for centuries. India thus has many opportunities to be at the forefront of efforts to align conservation and faith ideals.”

That India as a country is a mosaic of different faiths is known. In such a case where different faiths co-exist and the atmosphere may be politically charged, how does a conservationist navigate the terrain? Schaefer and Magellan list three main points to address this scenario. The first is to deal with all members across different faiths as a single group and communicate that everyone has a stake in the conservation goals. The second is to ensure that the focus always remains on the project and its benefits and does not get sidetracked into local politics. The third is to respect different views but try and reach an agreement that highlights mutual benefits, negotiating which may take more time but is essential nonetheless.

Many religions and faiths have world views that are inherently compatible with conserving biodiversity. It is also important to recognise that faith-based leaders are influential and can mobilise people for conservation efforts. One such instance where this was evident was the 2015 Conference of the Parties (CoP 21) negotiations in Paris. The run-up to the negotiations witnessed several religious leaders voice their support and express their wish to see the negotiations succeed and reach a consensus. An interfaith group of religious leaders called on civil society to unite in combating climate change and highlighted the role of industrial agriculture as a key cause.

The Dalai Lama expressed that acting on climate change is “a human responsibility” and Pope Francis said that it would be “catastrophic” if the Summit failed or was manipulated by business interests. This influence increases the need for such efforts to be informed by science and for cooperation between various stakeholders in the larger interests of conservation.