Sacred Plant Biocultural Recovery Initiative Launched!

Press Release
April 22, 2024

(Sacred Frankincense Tree Boswellia sacra at Risk in Oman, Photo by Gary Paul Nabhan)

Sacred Plants of Multiple Spiritual Traditions are Globally Risk from Warfare, Climate Change and Overharvesting, Posing Challenges to Religious Freedom:

A new alliance aims to ensure that sacred & ceremonial plants are safeguarded, restored and “rematriated” to the original caretakers & legitimate practitioners.

[Cambridge, Ma, April 22, 2024]. In an Earth Day lecture at Harvard University Barker Center, Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan will report initial results from a new assessment that underscores the globally unprecedented threats globally to plants traditionally employed by Indigenous cultures and religious faiths for centuries, if not millennia. Nabhan— an award-winning ethnobotanist, conservation biologist and Franciscan Brother—will announce the launch of a new interfaith, inter-tribal and interdisciplinary alliance to foster “ceremonial activism” and build technical support to help the caretakers recover these plants.

The Sacred Plant Biocultural Recovery Initiative will fast-track model solutions to deal with daunting challenges to the freedom to practice religions. Due to the increasing scarcity of sacramental, ceremonial or entheogenic (“God-manifesting”) plants essential to spiritual rituals and expressions, the practice of certain ancient traditions is being disrupted.  Efforts are urgently needed to: 1) seed or transplant the spiritually significant species into their original biocultural landscape; 2) buffer them from climate change through ecological restoration of sheltering habitats guided by spiritual leaders, and 3) involve and train youth who will become the next generation of caretakers for their cultural or religious community.

“Above all else, we wish to serve as a forum for exchanging cultural-sensitive strategies and best practices for keeping sacred plants alive and accessible to those whose physical and spiritual health depends upon them,” Nabhan has affirmed.

“Fortunately, there are lessons to learn from the reforestation of the sacred cedars of Lebanon in their montane habitats, from the ‘rainforest gardening’ of ceremonial plants of Indigenous residents of the Amazon, and from the caretakers of “church forests” and “saint’s forests” from Ethiopia to Morocco,” Nabhan added.  

While refining a more definitive list of sacred plants, the alliance will focus on means to reduce the risks of extinction due to climate change, land development, and warfare. And yet, sacred plants—including a small subset of psychedelic plants used in ceremonial healing—are also being endangered because of overharvesting by recreational users, cartels, and those naively engaged in cultural appropriation.

Such dilemmas cannot be solved merely by establishing new legal regulations nor by gene banking or garden cultivation; lasting solutions must avert the disruption or demise of interactions between the plants and the cultural communities which rely upon them. Otherwise, “the extinction of relationships” will occur.

To offset such extinctions, it will require the engagement of experts in “plant humanities” such as ethics, religion, folklife studies, and cultural history, not just botany and horticulture. More than anything else, it must engage spiritual leaders of all cultures in co-training young professionals to safeguard or restore these plants in the “original” biocultural landscapes and rituals, not in isolation. “If we are successful, we may also bridge the divides between science and religion by working together toward solutions that bring diverse peoples together,” Nabhan added hopefully.

To build the initial framework for cross-cultural collaboration, the Initiative has enlisted the guidance of five Indigenous elders from “First Nations” in North America, as well as technical support for training workshops from the following organizations: the Dumbarton Oaks/JSTOR Plant Humanities project affiliated with Harvard; the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology; the Amazon Conservation Team; the Borderlands Restoration Network; Emory University Herbarium; Sacred Lands Film Project; Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon; the Springs Stewardship Institute; Stanford University’s Ecology & Religion Working Group; Appalachian Institute for Mountain Studies; the University of Kansas Medicinal Plant Program; the University of Victoria Ethnobotany Programme; Center for Collaborative Conservation, Colorado State University; Center for Humans and Nature, and the Soulscape Project of Simon Fraser University. Other invitees are going to their communities and boards before confirming their commitments to this effort.  Those who accept advisory roles will be convening the first brainstorming retreats and then co-training participants in field workshops beginning in the late summer of 2024.

Immediately after Earth Day, we will launch two cases studies of geographic regions where we know many sacred plants are being overwhelmed by many threats: 1) the US-Mexico border region from San Diego and Tijuana to Brownsville where Trump’s wall destruction damaged roughly thirty-two species of plants at sacred sites important to both Indigenous and Hispanic Catholic traditions and 2) the eastern Mediterranean coast from Syria, Lebanon, Golan Heights, Gaza, and Egypt, where at least seventeen sacred plant species may have been imperiled by recent armed conflicts.  The initial focus will be on detecting sacred plant destruction and habitat damage where sacred plants occurred historically and ranking the severity of causal effects across space and time.  We will then support existing groups already working on restoration, and train new coalitions to do so.  Other proposed target regions can be suggested through a multi-cultural board of advisors from 10 nations and 7 spiritual traditions.

SPBCRI founder-facilitator Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan: As an Arab-American whose clan in Lebanon has participated in the protection of “hima” sacred reserves of spring-fed wetlands for decades, Nabhan has been a proponent of spiritual ecology and sacred land and plant protection over his entire career. In 2005, Nabhan collaborated with Yaqui Indian leader Octaviana Trujillo of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation and others to develop the Sacred Lands and Gathering Grounds Toolkit for Access, Protection, Restoration and Co-management, in consultation with more than two dozen Indigenous communities and agencies. It remains available for downloading at  In 2021, he worked with the Healing the Border intertribal and interfaith work group to guide Tohono O’odham tribal leaders in drafting and unanimously passing a resolution protecting the sacred saguaro cactus as a sentient being with legal status equal to human beings.  It was among the first of its kind in the world to grant a sacred plant legal “personhood.” As a professed Brother in the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans, he has written about the need for interfaith and cross-cultural collaboration to protect and restore sacred plants and ceremonial grounds in the New York Times, Franciscan Action Network, National Catholic Reporter, Ecological Restoration journal, Arizona Republic, High Country News and Salt Lake Tribune.  For his community service and literary writing, he has been honored with lifetime achievement awards or fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trust, the Christensen Fund, and most recently, the Takreem Foundation.

Media Contact:
Gary Paul Nabhan, PhD
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