In this thesis, I hold a plea for the recognition and integration of Indigenous people’s realities in conservation practice, management and policy related to their sacred natural sites. Sacred natural sites can be mountains, rivers, forests, trees and rocks that have special spiritual significance to indigenous peoples. To Indigenous peoples these places are not just part of their environment, culture and spirituality but they also form their worldviews and ethnicities.
Based on my research on sacred natural sites, I look at how Indigenous people’s realities can be integrated into conservation approaches and how they lead to the co-creation of new forms of nature conservation. In doing so I focus on how a common ground is being created by Indigenous peoples and development and conservation actors. I argue that this common ground has the capacity to transform conservation practice, management and policy if different worldviews, including those of Indigenous peoples, are equally considered.
The structure of this thesis represents my personal learning curve. It starts off with my earlier work developed as a conservationist with a natural sciences background and with many years of working experience in the field of international nature conservation. The Chapters gradually take on a sociological and anthropological angle, applying ethnographic research to conservation issues. As a result, the thesis represents the experience of a social conservation scientist doing applied and socially engaged research.
The first part of the thesis is built upon conservation literature and draws on a multitude of case studies and previously published work. It presents an overview of the overall importance that indigenous sacred natural sites have to the current field of nature conservation and the main challenges and opportunities that these sites pose to conservationists.
The second part of the thesis builds on case studies and applied ethnographic field research undertaken on conservation projects in North East Arnhem Land in Australia, Santa Cruz del Quiché in Guatemala and the Upper North-West Region in Ghana. In these locations, I have built up working relationships with local indigenous groups and the organisations that support them; respectively these are Yolŋu (since 2007), Maya (since 2012) and Dagara (since 2011).
The qualitative research methods used throughout my research are based on ethnography, participatory research, observational research, co-creation of research, semi-structured interviews, focus groups, freelisting but also the field of social policy analysis, discourse analysis and literature research. They are particularly useful in situations where the research process contributes to finding solutions for concrete conservation problems with all parties involved.
The conceptual framework brings together empirical studies and critical analyses of Indigenous sacred natural sites in different geographical, ecological, cultural and spiritual contexts. As these contexts vary across different places I studied the development of different common grounds between indigenous and non-indigenous actors in the specific locations. Eventually, I brought these studies together in an effort to distil common elements for the construction of a generic common ground.
In the conceptual framework, worldviews and spirituality meet with conceptual areas such as ontological pluralism, biocultural diversity and rights-based approaches across geographical scales and governance levels. I argue that were they meet a common ground is created. I provide further analysis of the process of creating a common ground on the basis of the conceptual areas mentioned above, and draw conclusions that are relevant to furthering scientific debate in these areas as well to the field of conservation.
Chapter 2 concludes that sacred natural sites are important to the conservation of nature and biodiversity because they form an informal network managed and governed by local Indigenous people. This network goes largely unrecognized by the international conservation community and local protected area managers and planners. The chapter presents ten challenges that sacred natural sites pose to the field of conservation and restoration of biological and cultural diversity.
Chapter 3 takes examples of Indigenous worldviews and conservation practices from around the world to demonstrate that these form part of approaches that integrate biocultural values in nature conservation. I argue that in order to be effective and sustainable, nature conservation requires to be based on both science and culture, and combine scientific data on the natural world with experiential knowledge about nature of the social-cultural groups involved. The chapter concludes that, for management to be truly adaptive, it needs to respond to societal and cultural changes which can be achieved by enabling Indigenous people and local communities to guide conservation efforts.
Chapter 4 addresses how the modern conservation movement can use biocultural conservation approaches to overcome disparities between the management and governance of nature and culture. In this discourse about biocultural conservation approaches, the spiritual and the sacred are essential to the conservation of an interconnected network of biocultural hotspots – sacred natural sites.
Chapter 5 demonstrates the importance of Indigenous ontologies in cross-cultural coastal conservation management, particularly the development of locally relevant guidelines for fishers in North East Arnhem Land, Australia. I explore the ‘both ways’ approach adopted by the Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation, and that guides collaboration between Yolŋu and non-Yolŋu. Disjunctures and synergies between the two ontologies are identified and I offer reflection on the role of the researcher in the cross-cultural co-production of guidelines for fishers and boaters.
Chapter 6 analyses how spiritual leaders build common ground for community conservation of sacred natural sites in the face of neoliberalism in Ghana and Guatemala. The research demonstrates that, beyond rights-based approaches, a common ground is essential to developing feasible and acceptable solutions for the protection and conservation of sacred natural sites. I identify ‘ontological equity’ as an important principle for establishing this common ground. I then argue that neoliberal approaches to conservation and resource development are prejudiced because they ignore the principle of ontological equity and suppress lived realities of sacred natural sites and the existence of the wider spiritscape.
Chapter 7 describes the emerging spaces in international policy and conservation practices as they manifest themselves in a series of conferences, the development of guidelines for protected area managers, and how these have worked to sensitize conservationists to sacred natural sites and their custodians. In connecting different conservation approaches from the local to the international level the chapter shows how a common ground is being created.
The key findings of this thesis include several universal elements to the creation of a common ground: willingness to learn about other worldviews; application of participatory approaches and applied research; the use of cultural brokers; active processes of stakeholder engagement; agreement on governance arrangements and the adoption of ontological equity.
I draw four conclusions derived from the main research results:
1) Biocultural conservation approaches can enable the creation of a common ground, but they may also constrain Indigenous ontologies;
2) Conservationists should learn from other worldviews and ontologies in order to improve the conservation of Indigenous sacred natural sites;
3) Non-human agency and spiritual governance are under-recognised in the conservation of spiritscapes and sacred natural sites;
4) Combining an ethnographic approach with an engaged and participatory research strategy is useful for considering multiple ontologies.
The recommendations of this thesis could form part of a future research agenda for the development of a common ground between Indigenous people, conservationists, and development actors in relation to the conservation of Indigenous sacred natural sites. The main recommendation is that conservation and development actors should consider multiple ontologies when creating a common ground for the development of biocultural conservation approaches.