Press Releases March 2006 - Conserving Biological Diversity Becomes a Sacred Quest - United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
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Conserving Biological Diversity Becomes a Sacred Quest

Curitiba/Nairobi, 18 March 2006 - An international initiative to conserve ancient sacred sites is being launched in the belief that these culturally important locations may be a key to saving the world’s declining biodiversity.

Experts have pinpointed several sites as pilot ecosystems of global importance such as a site in Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert where it is said the sun was born, up to a network of skull caves in the Kakamega forests in Kenya, revered by Taita and Luhya people.

Other sites are Mount Ausangate in the majestic Vilcanota mountain range of Peru, the ritual area of Puntayachi in the biodiversity-rich Cayanpi region of Ecuador.

A group of islands in Guinea Bissau whose beaches and mangroves are used exclusively for rituals.

Sacred forest groves in the Kodagu District in India linked with art and agricultural traditions.

The project, backed by organizations including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and indigenous peoples groups such as the Foundation created by Guatemalan Nobel Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu, has secured preliminary funding from a multi billion dollar development fund, the Global Environment Facility.

Supporters, which also include a wide range of conservation organizations, other United Nations bodies and governments including Mexico, are now raising the over $1.7 million needed to start action on the ground.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, said: “There is clear and growing evidence of a link between cultural diversity and biodiversity, between reverence for the land and a location and a breadth of often unique and special plants and animals”.

“Sadly sacred sites are also under threat and there is an urgent need to help local, indigenous and traditional peoples safeguard their heritage which in turn can do much to conserve the biological and genetic diversity upon which we all depend,” he added.

In 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, governments committed themselves to reverse the rate of loss of biodiversity by 2010.

“Conserving sacred sites and their biological richness can play a major role in achieving the 2010 target and perhaps act as beacons from where good and sustainable management practices can be exported to nearby areas and beyond,” said Mr Toepfer.

Ms Menchu said: “It may seem accidental, but is not accidental, that where indigenous peoples live is where the greatest biological diversity, the diversity

of nature, exists too. The values on which indigenous peoples have built

our complex systems are founded in the ethical, spiritual and sacred

nature that links our peoples with the whole work of creation”.

“This is why we demand the formal recognition of our conservation efforts, of our protected territories, of our sacred places, of the ethical values that support our lifestyles," she added.

Gonzalo Oviedo of IUCN-the World Conservation Union, one of the organizations involved, said: “Sacred natural sites are natural areas recognized by indigenous and traditional peoples as having special cultural and spiritual significance. They range from mountains, forests and islands up to desert oasis, lakes, rivers and groves”.

“Communities managing such sites have made many efforts locally to try and boost the prospects for such sites, but to date global action has been far from the level needed to ensure a global shift in their fortunes. This project aims to cement a wide alliance and mobilize the international attention so urgently needed in this neglected field,” he added.

The project, Conservation of Biodiversity Rich Sacred Natural Sites, will be publicly unveiled at the 8th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) taking place in Curitiba, Brazil, between 20 and 31 March.

Here, a wide range of initiatives linking indigenous peoples and biological diversity are planned, including details of another project aimed at safeguarding the biological and cultural diversity of the tropical islands of Palau, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu in the Pacific.

Sacred Sites – the Pilot Network


The Boloma-Bijagos is an archipelago of 88 islands in Guinea-Bissau with rich and diversified habitats ranging from dry and semi-dry forests up to coastal savannas and sand banks.

The area covers over 100,000 hectares and is know for its abundance of crustaceans, mollusks and fish, as well as animals like the Nile crocodile and hippopotamus.

The Bijagos community observes a range of rules. For example certain areas are off limits or access is confined to those who have ‘completed their ceremonial duties'. In many of the sites certain activities are banned including sexual relations, burials, the shedding of blood, and construction of permanent settlements.

“These traditional practices of the Bijagos that limit periodically the free access to certain areas and their natural resources effectively assists in the preservation of the sites for flora and fauna. An interesting overlapping is that the most valued sites for biodiversity also happen to be the most sacred ones,” explained Mr Oviedo.

Two sites have been earmarked in Kenya. These are the Tiriki ceremonial sites in the west and the Taita skull caves in the coastal province.

The Tiriki site have been of huge interest to scientists for some time representing as they do the remains of a rainforest of which much has been lost.

Experts suspect that the ceremonial sites harbour unique plant and animal species which have benefited from the protection afforded by clan elders and traditional customs and beliefs.

They plan to fully document the plants, birds and reptiles present, as well as undertaking socio-cultural surveys among local communities. In collaboration with the National Museums of Kenya, it is planned to list key sites and assess the potential for eco-tourism.

The skull caves of the Taita are located in the Eastern Arc, one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots and home to unique and rare species, including coffee.

The caves, known locally as Pango, are where the skulls of male members of the tribe and important people are placed. The enormous number of rituals and taboos surrounding the caves has led to small but important relics of indigenous forest surviving on hill tops such as Mbololo and Chawia.


The Kodagu District in the Western Ghats of Karnataka State, India, is something like the sacred grove capital of the world. The groves also harbour the richest biodiversity of the area.

The district consists of deep forests associated with flower gardens on mountain slopes and paddy cultivation in the valleys. Sacred groves and sacred water bodies form the centre of local peoples' livelihoods and rituals associated with farming.

The land tenure system for the groves is unique and while ownership is within the State Forest Department, recent government initiatives have specifically recognized the role of local people in sacred grove management.

Latin America

Three sites in Mexico have been pinpointed under the pilot. Wirikuta is in the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico which is one of the most biologically rich and diverse deserts in the world, rivaled only by the Namib-Karoo of southern Africa and the Great Sandy Desert of Australia.

Wirikuta, said to be where the sun was born, covers some 140,000 hectares and is home to 70 per cent of the birds and 60 per cent of the mammals of the desert.

It is also on the eastern edge of an annual pilgrimage of the Huichoi ‘jicareros’ where novices eat the sacred cacti that allow them to communicate with deities and ancestors.

The site is under threat from uncontrolled tourism, agriculture, over exploitation of underground aquifers, hunting, and illegal traffic in wildlife.

Tiburon or Taheojc Island is located in the Gulf of California, Mexico, and is part of an area known as the ‘Sarcocaulescent Desert’. The island, noted for its rich wildlife including cercidium trees and shrubs, deer, birds and invertebrates, is the last home of the Seri people.

They believe that the island is central to their cosmology or view of the Universe with folk stories related to spirits and deities centered around the heart of the island. Economic and political problems threaten the Seri way of life and thus the extraordinary biodiversity.

The Sacred Caves of the Wind and Fertility are an eight hectare site sacred to the Tenek, Nahua and Pame people of Huastecan region in the State of San Luis Potosi, Mexico.

The forests linked with the site have been devastated by cattle grazing, leaving a small patch that is a reservoir for medicinal plants.

The Cayambe area, located in the Eastern Range of the Ecuadorean Andes, harbours a wide range of ecosystems including humid cloud forests, alpine grasslands and humid tropical forests. It is also home to the highly threatened Andean condor.

The area has great spiritual significance to the Cayanpi and other peoples of the region, with several revered mountains, lakes and rivers. One of the sacred sites is Puntayachi where local people celebrate the cycles of the sun.

Other rituals are associated with the appearance of the Southern Cross in the sky.

The Vilcanota Spirtual Park in Peru is part of the Vilcanota mountain range in the south of the country and home to the Q’eros people.

There are a large number of native and unique species in the region including wild vicunas, pumas, Andean goose, and important tree species.

A wide range of rituals are linked to ecosystem conservation some of which are connected with cocoa, native potatoes and wild flowers, and involve banning the exploitation of certain key pasture lands.

Notes to Editors

For more information on the pilot sites please go to

Pictures can also be accessed at the same site.

A series of side events on biodiversity and indigenous people are being held at the 8th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity




Further Resources

Photo gallery
A selection of photos available for high resolution download.

Conference of the Parties to the CBD
Third meeting of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety
Curitiba, Brazil, 13-17 March 2006

Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)

Fundación Rigoberta Menchú Tum

IUCN - the World Conservation Union

Global Environment Facility (GEF)

CBD Press Release
The largest biodiversity meeting in decades meets in Brazil to adopt a roadmap to achieve the 2010 biodiversity target and save life on earth (Press Release - Curitiba, 16 March 2006)

Message of Ahmed Djoghlaf
Message of Ahmed Djoghlaf, the new Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, to the local authorities of the world

Cultural Diversity and Biodiversity for Sustainable Development
This booklet is the summary of a high-level roundtable on "Cultural Diversity and Biodiversity for Sustainable Development", convened by UNEP together with UNESCO during the WSSD in Johannesburg 2002.
(PDF, 10.0 MB)

Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity
A Complementary Contribution to the Global Biodiversity Assessment


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