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Alex Riberi: Ritual of Light

We are working in collaboration with the Wageningen University and Research, in particular the Forest and Nature Conservation Policy Group. We want to increase the interest outside and inside the academic environment about the potentiality of spiritual awareness for the conservation of nature and cultures all over the world.

Every time a forest is destroyed, a life form suffers violence, a language is lost, a form of civilization is cut down, a genocide is committed.

Ms. Rigoberta MENCHÚ TUM Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (1992)


The multidisciplinary components of nature conservation and ecosystem management are currently well recognized in the assessments of environmental protection and ecological restoration. In this context the inextricable link between the cultural and biological diversity emerges as a driving force. Despite the importance, shared within the international community, to take into account the values of cultural diversity in its various facets, it is difficult to use them as final decision-making powers due to the challenge of translating them into economic values (Satz et al 2013). Anyway placing monetary values on species and ecosystems pushes to an incomplete vision that avoid considering fundamental cultural aspects without whom is not really possible to have a holistic vision about the humans-nature relationship (Heywood 1998). The future of biodiversity must not be left only to technical, scientific and economic experts, but rather depends upon respect for and protection of the myriad of views, values and visions that together form the mosaic of life (Posey 1999). There is a mutual dependency between biological diversity and culture (UNEP), in fact biodiversity-rich areas can be seen as social spaces, in which nature and culture are re- newed with the conscious actions of local people (Ghimire and Pimbert 1997). Even the pristine Amazonian rain forest, commonly considered as the ultimate expression of wilderness, has been shaped during millennia by the intervention of indigenous people , under the influence of the acquired knowledge (UNESCO).

The main objective of this essay is to show with practical evidences the deep correlation between cultural diversity and biodiversity and how to use the intrinsic potentialities to develop successful nature conservation plans.


The ability to model and shape the environment has been the hallmark of our species and men have been ingenious and creative shapers of the ecosystems, draining inspiration from experiencing the forces of nature in the daily life, in conjunction with the privilege of creating diverse form of culture in time and space (UNESCO). The result is a colourful mandala of cultures that have been perpetuated and evolved in a sustainable connection, in a continuous flux of change under reciprocal influences.

Analysing in a deeper way the cultural context, therefore shifting the focus on those alive realities in which local communities manage their life in symbiosis with the surrounding environment, we encounter a more dense network that is manifested in the local language, in the practice activities, in rituals, beliefs in the sense of the sacred, in principles and values of those men. All this can be summed up in the concept, specially coined, of the ‘traditional ecological knowledge’ or TEK.

TEK is the representation of ancient links between societies and the environment (Berkes, 2012) and is referring to a complex of practice, belief and knowledge that is accumulated over generations, incorporating a conscious resource management across much of the globe (Pretty et al. 2009). An important feature of TEK is its strong localization, whereby it is not possible to generalize its validity in an abstract theory, intrinsic procedure of the western science. Therefore, TEK contain the knowledge and the wisdom of local people and includes the invisible socio-cultural context, basis for the social-ecological resilience (Prober et al. 2011, Ruiz-Mallen et al. 2013).

Micheal Pimbert and Jules Pretty paid special attention to the great potential of community based TEK for conservation, arguing that decentralized local systems are critical to successful conservation policies. Several studies illustrated how this knowledge can guide natural resources' management and biodiversity conservation practices (Agarwal 2001, Colding et al. 2003, Berkes 2007, Rai et al 2007).

Other studies found a robust combination of TEK and western science as a potentiality to improve management decisions and enhance the validity of ecological inferences (Olson et al. 2001,Blann et al 2003, Berkes 2004, Polfus et al. 2014).

Considering the importance of TEK for numerous local realities, each of which corre- sponds to the complex of people-culture-biodiversity, emerges an increasing interest to protect the TEK as a starting point to preserve and improve the conservation management (Kato 2006, McCarter et al. 2014, Deak et al . 2016)


The Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area is an interesting example of successful application of traditional ecological practices in combination with western scientific conservation management with the aim to avoid the loss of biocultural diversity.

This forested region of more than 900.000 ha, situated in the north-east of the State of Queensland, in Australia was described by the WTMA, in 1992, as the most diverse as- semblage of primitives angiosperm plant families in the world, with elements of its biota representing eight major stages of earth’s evolutionary history. Other authors detect in it an outstanding cultural diversity (Hill ans Smyth 1999). The local aboriginal inhabitants have a peculiar rainforest culture, with unique features in their material technology, languages and social organisation (Horsfall and Hall 1990). After the region has been proclaimed World Heritage Area, they asked for a higher involvement in its management, in terms of joint management, and for the re-nomination of the Wet Tropics as a natural and cultural world heritage site (Fourmile et al. 1995). In the northern part of this region, an ethnic group, the Kuku-Jalangi, raised the issue about the lost of open forest, shared by a number of scientist.

The research conducted in 1995 by Rosemary Hill and Dermoth Smyth found that the wet sclerophyll forest was interconnected with the traditional practices of the Kuku-Jalangi, which social and cultural context was dependent from that particular habitat (Hill et al. 2003). In particular it showed that half of the area of wet sclerophyll forest has been lost due to rainforest invasion, connecting the changes with the disruption of aboriginal practices. The study involved the Kuku-Jalangi and their traditional knowledge with the main aim to avoid a loss of biodiversity, without forgetting the protection of the intrinsic cultural diversity of the area. During the process it has been clear that a successful collaboration finds its roots in providing relevant outcomes for the Kuku-Jalangi, protecting intellectual, cultural and spiritual property rights and ensuring a primary place for their ecological knowledge. An active collaboration and reciprocal trust (cross cultural understanding) resulted in benefits for all parties: the conservation of the distinct ecosystem, safeguarding the traditional knowledge and practices and economic benefits for the Kuku-Jalangi deriving from the management practices provided for a World Heritage Area.


Particular aspects of the biocultural diversity frame are the different forms of spirituality evolved through the time consequently the intimate human-nature relationship and the potentiality that spirituality has over men, driving them toward a spontaneous nature conservation habit.

Emotional ties with nature and its invisible realm, are two of the most powerful incentives to conserve and respect forests (Shanley et al. 1996). The Kasephuan community in the Mount Halimum in Indonesia shows the potential of spirituality and its founding principles to guide people toward a deep respect for all the form of life. The life of these people depends from the forest and what it can provide and, as result, they developed a particular management plan. They divided the forest in three parts: the ancient forest, the exploited forest were they settled their farms and the sacred forest. In the exploited forest the Kasephuan established a sustainable poly culture strategy, while the sacred forest has been continuously maintained and protected during the centuries, according to the research conducted by Kusnaka Adimihardja.

Spirituality can be an additional resource for the protection of the environment, in particular for those sacred sites, that exist with inherent spiritual or religious content. Many of this sacred places are “plant or wildlife sanctuaries” (Schaff 1995) and they bear an important role for ecological research and nature protection, being reference areas for assessing the potential natural vegetation of a whole area. While spirituality can support environmental preservation, on the other, safeguarding certain places is essential for the survival of these cults, rooted in the environment in which they developed (Prangnel et al. 2010).


The previous paragraphs examined the links between cultural diversity and biodiversity; the relation is so deep, that in my opinion, it is an abstract thinking to identify any culture without the environment of which it belongs and consequently is not possible to preserve the biodiversity of that system without preserving the culture that developed in it. Clearly emerge the importance of involve the cultural component in the assessments and the sub- sequent interventions in nature conservation (Sheridan and Nyamweru 2008, Verschureen et al. 2010).

An increasing attention is paid to the topic and in 2014, a joint programme between UN- ESCO and the SCBD has been undertaken, sharing a vision of a world that take care for present and future generation and the efforts of the global community are focused on sustaining biological and cultural diversity. Using their words “the mission is to strengthen the linkages between biological and cultural diversity initiatives”, giving as a guideline “a holis- tic approach consistent with cultural and spiritual values, world views and knowledge systems and livelihoods that contribute to conservation and sustainable and equitable use of biodiversity”.

Moreover, the European Landscape Convention defined landscape as shaped by the bio- cultural diversity, which character results from the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors. Landscape is recognized in its multifunctional concept, taking into account landscape cultural services (spiritual, inspiration, aesthetic, recreation services) in environmental conservation policies. As Shama (1995) said: “Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected into wood, water and rock”.

This can be a turn point around conservation: policy maker and organizations can work on conservation management plans considering in their whole ecosystems, protected and sacred area, multifunctional landscapes, focusing the attention on the biocultural diversity. The new perspective find its basis in inseparability of cultural and biological diversity, followed by a change of focus from ecosystem function to landscape values, that results in understanding the connections between biodiversity and human traditional practices (cultural practices, land use and management) and the practical implications in conservation (Atik et al. 2013). The value of biocultural diversity does not end in those called “indige- nous realities”, but is also valid for “non-traditional” realities; cultural elements and practices in relation with biodiversity may endure in urban and periurban areas (Posey 1999, Wiersum 2010, Cocks et al 2012). Furthermore, there is a better comprehension on how people’s awareness can be a driving force to protect and enhance biocultural diversity.


There is not just one way to do nature conservation; to be successful we need to protect and enhance existent networks, as the biocultural link between traditional ecological knowledge and nature, and develop new networks able to include all the different actors with a role in conservation, from the international level of governments and organizations, till the local communities. Cultural diversity and spiritual values not only are interconnected with biodiversity, but can fill the role of powerful motivators and educators for a more spontaneous conservationist attitude of all the people. In this scenario man is definitively part of the nature and without it the man simply can’t be; therefore it is not about to be, but to inter being.

(References available upon request)

Copyright © 2017. Marco Tuna Daldoss Pirri. All rights reserved.

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