Religion Can Benefit Conservation

By limiting human activity at sacred sites, many traditional societies serendipitously protected biodiversity there as well. New research shows that religion can still be a powerful force for conservation today: a religious association in southwest China is restoring sacred sites, bringing their plant diversity close to that of a nearby nature reserve.

“Conserving biodiversity based on cultural and religious values is often more sustainable than based only on legislation or regulation,” say Liu Hongmao, Director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden in Menglun, People’s Republic of China, and three coauthors in the April issue of Biodiversity and Conservation.

Liu and his colleagues explored the role of religion in conserving plants in Xishuangbanna, a region of China that accounts for only 0.2 percent of the country’s land but has about 18 percent of its 30,000 plant species. Since the 1950s, the region’s tropical forest cover has decreased by about half, and about 600 species of plants have gone extinct there.

Xishuangbanna’s most common ethnic group is the Dai people, whose polytheistic and Buddhist beliefs traditionally played an important role in conserving local plant diversity. In accordance with the Dai’s polytheistic beliefs, each village had a holy hill forest where the gods lived and where hunting, gathering, and cutting were prohibited. Today, the region has about 250 holy hills, each of which is about 1,000-1,500 hectares. The researchers surveyed the plants in 28 holy hill forests and found 268 plant species, 15 of which are protected in China. “The holy hills can be considered as small nature reserves established by the Dai traditional beliefs,” they say.

In accordance with Buddhist beliefs, each village must have a temple with a garden containing plants related to the religion, such as the flowers and fruits used as offerings during ceremonies. Liu and his colleagues surveyed the plants in 51 of the 558 temple gardens in Xishuangbanna and found more than 100 plant species. “Temple gardens have played a significant role in the conservation of plant species,” they say.

To enhance the role of traditional beliefs in conserving plant diversity, the Association of Integrating Traditional Beliefs and Plant Conservation was established in 1997. Since then, botanists have helped the Association offer 32 courses that include identifying and managing plants and training more than 1,300 people in Xishuangbanna.

The Association also has organized more than 500 people to recover plant diversity at six temple and four holy hill sites, many of which were destroyed in the 1960s and 1970s. Liu and his colleagues compared the holy hill sites before and after restoration and found that plant diversity increased by more than 8 percent, approaching that of the nature reserve.

Liu and his colleagues believe that the approach of combining traditional beliefs and conservation could be widely used. “All of the world’s major religions are sensitive to the importance of biodiversity and nature,” they say.

—Robin Meadows

Further Information:
Liu, H., Z.F Xu, and J.X. Wang. 2002. Practice of conserving plant diversity through traditional beliefs: A case study in Xishuangbanna, southwest China. Biodiversity and Conservation 11:705-713

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