International Efforts to Protect Sacred Places

U.N. Declarations and Conventions

On the international level, the United Nations has some guidelines that impact land-based religious practitioners around the world. The 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights declares that freedom of religion is a fundamental human right. Article 18 reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

In 1994, a draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was proposed. It was a far-reaching document that required many years of hard work by indigenous leaders to be approved by U.N. member nations. Two particular articles in the original draft — which endured unchanged for more than a decade — had direct relevance to the protection of sacred lands. Article 13 stated: “Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practice, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies; the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right to the use and control of ceremonial objects; and the right to the repatriation of human remains. States shall take effective measures, in conjunction with the indigenous peoples concerned, to ensure that indigenous sacred places, including burial sites, be preserved, respected and protected.” Article 25 stated: “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual and material relationship with the lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used, and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.”

On Sept. 13, 2007, the U.N. General Assembly approved a revised Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. (See our blog post for comments on changes made to the final declaration that removed the words “sacred places.”)

At the April 2004 meeting of the 12th U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development, indigenous representatives presented two statements regarding the sacredness of water and the importance of local management of traditional territories for a sustainable future. Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, told the commission: “Communities must declare all water sources as sacred sites.” Read the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus Statements as presented to the U.N. commission in New York.

Considering sacred lands from an international perspective, and in a human rights context, is instructive because it shifts the focus from the U.S. Constitution and the American legal system to a wider frame of reference.

Also significant is the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, which has an important clause in Article 8 (j) requiring countries that sign the convention to “respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.” The United States has not signed the convention.

An International Movement to Protect Sacred Natural Sites

Beginning in 2003, an important new international movement for the protection of sacred places began building momentum. At the Fifth World Parks Congress in South Africa in September 2003, delegates produced the Durban Recommendations on the Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas (see V.13 on pages 168-170), which called for the recognition of the spiritual values of protected areas around the world, and the full inclusion of indigenous communities and spiritual leaders in the management of sacred natural sites.

Then, from May 30 to June 2, 2005, a major symposium convened in Tokyo, Japan: “Conserving Cultural and Biological Diversity: The Role of Sacred Natural Sites and Cultural Landscapes.” This meeting brought together 200 people from every continent to document and discuss how sacred natural sites — and the local communities that care for them — nurture and protect biodiversity. U.N. experts from the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Convention on Biodiversity, the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and the Food and Agriculture Organization, along with the World Conservation Union (IUCN), met with numerous indigenous people, protected area managers, scientists and academics. The discussions were aimed at protecting sacred places, and surrounding ecosystems, through existing international instruments, new laws and improved land management policies.

A number of important documents have emerged as this historic cultural preservation movement continues to grow. Symposium participants in Japan drafted and approved the Tokyo Declaration, which urges the development and implementation of UNESCO and IUCN’s Draft Guidelines for the Conservation and Management of Sacred Natural Sites, and the dissemination of the Convention on Biodiversity’s Akwé: Kon Guidelines for the conduct of cultural, environmental and social impact assessment regarding developments proposed to take place on, or which are likely to impact, sacred sites and the lands and waters traditionally occupied or used by indigenous and local communities. (Akwé: Kon is pronounced agway-goo, and is a Mohawk term meaning “everything in creation.”) The guidelines are also available in French and Spanish.

The following documents are also relevant:

IUCN Sacred Natural Sites Guidelines and Motion 53

From 2006 to 2008, SLFP Project Director Christopher McLeod, with colleague Rob Wild, edited and wrote guidelines for the management of sacred natural sites in protected areas around the world. In 2008, IUCN and UNESCO published Best Practices Volume 16, Sacred Natural Sites – Guidelines for Protected Area Managers, and launched the publication at the World Conservation Congress in Barcelona, Spain. A Sacred Site Custodians’ Dialogue was held in Barcelona prior to the release of the guidelines and the custodians present drafted and issued a statement about protecting sacred sites. IUCN members also passed Motion 53, “Recognition and conservation of sacred natural sites in protected areas.”

As a result, sacred site management is now an accepted category of conservation practice with internationally recognized guidelines, principles and policies, all supported by more than a dozen case studies. The guidelines are now being field tested in protected areas around the world. The book is a milestone achievement that affirms that sacred places are the oldest protected areas on the planet.

Statements by Sacred Site Guardians

Each culture has its own protocols for the protection of sacred places. As this international movement has evolved and gained momentum, networks of guardians have gathered to write their own statements to clarify their local spiritual and political perspective. An example is the Statement by the Participants of the “Defining Fire” Ceremony in Russia’s Altai Republic in June 2011.

For Comparison: a Law in Australia Intended to Protect Sacred Lands

For perhaps the one law in the world that explicitly protects indigenous peoples’ sacred lands, consider Australia’s Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act. The Northern Land Council and the Central Land Council are Aboriginal-controlled organizations that monitor this legislation, along with the use of and activities on Aboriginal lands. The Central Land Council report “Our Land, Our Life” provides details about how the land councils operate and explains current difficulties with land rights and sacred site protection in Australia. The report states that the 1989 act “is not strong enough as Aboriginal people say it provides miners with the ‘legal’ means to destroy sites.”

Benin’s Sacred Forest Protection Law (2012)

In 2012, the West African country of Benin passed national legislation granting legal recognition to community sacred groves. The law prohibits tree cutting and other destructive activities, creates buffer zones around sacred forests, and designates community management committees. Sacred groves are defined as homes to ancestors’ spirits and gods worshiped by local communities, burial forests, and places of initiation ceremonies and other spiritual practices.