Some things are sacred

Fauna & Flora International’s Culture, Values and Conservation Project has recently published a report on the sacred sites of Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains. The project has been researching these sites to understand their meaning and design ways to integrate them (and the values they represent) into the management of Rwenzori Mountains National Park.

The report describes the history, functions and management of 14 sacred sites and one cultural site, though there are many more yet to be described. It discusses the changing cultural, social and economic environment in which the sites exist and the impacts of the national park’s establishment on them and the values and beliefs connected to them.

Sacred natural sites, it has been written, are the oldest method of habitat protection in the world and there is a growing interest in their role in conserving biodiversity. Existing publications provide guidelines on managing sacred natural sites for conservation and describe their many values (see for example the IUCN’s Sacred Natural Sites and Protected Lanscapes and Cultural and Spiritual Values).

But not all sacred natural sites conserve nature. Some receive so many visitors (not necessarily drawn by nature) that the sites actually cause damage to the environment. Tens of thousands of pilgrims climb the long staircase to the famous Perfumed Pagoda in Vietnam, for example, buying orchids torn from nearby hills, eating any wild animal on offer and littering the surroundings.

Unlocking the potential

Two interesting things jumped out of the Rwenzori report for me. The first was that it brings home the clear disconnect between i) the mountain people and their mountains and ii) the efforts of government and NGOs to protect the mountains and their biodiversity.

Despite decades of work on community participation in governance, education and awareness programmes, negotiated access to natural resources and more, neither the national park, its inscription as a World Heritage Site nor the numerous projects supporting conservation management made any reference to the sacred sites or the implications of cutting people off from them. When the park was established, it became illegal for people to access the sites for ceremonies and rituals.

The Culture, Values and Conservation Project is changing this, and harnessing the powerful connections between the people and the mountains in support of conservation objectives.

The second was that we must be careful not to become overly focused on the sites themselves. However sacred the sites are, their real importance for conservation is the window they provide into the lives of their guardians. The sites help us to understand how people live within and relate to their environment and how their culture, values, beliefs, practices and institutions influence this.

The sites in the Rwenzoris teach us that the great creator, Nyamuhanga, made the snow for which the mountains are famous. The snow, Inzururu, is the father of Kithasamba who lives within the snow and governs the lives of mountain people. The sacred sites, together with the sacred landscape, give rise to lines of power, both spiritual and secular, that determine the lives of the people. Power passes from Kithasamba to Omusinga, the king, and through the king to the chiefs and the mountain ridge leaders.

The chiefs and ridge leaders are responsible for the sites and the ceremonies that keep the people safe and well. They are also responsible for the mountains’ different zones and resources and for ensuring people’s respect for the gods and spirits when using them. They had and still have considerable authority.

As the national park managers learn about these ancient institutions and the beliefs and values that underpin them, they are beginning to unlock the potential for partnerships with the mountain people based on respect for all of the values of the mountains, both natural and sacred.

If you’d like to know more, you can download the report (PDF).