There is a general consensus around the fact that Sacred Natural Sites are places of ecological, spiritual and cultural significance for traditional local communities. The ecological benefit of any Sacred Natural Site emanates from the spiritual value attached to it by the community.
For the community, a Sacred Natural Site is a special natural place where a supernatural power resides. Custodians and the community gather in the Sacred Natural Sites, at a time they deem appropriate,to pray to their God about the wellbeing of the people, domestic and wild animals, he trees/forests…etc. They also gather at these places to pray to their God to protect them from any natural calamity, such as draught, epidemic, heavy rains and flooding etc. They say the places are places for conflict resolution and healing. They are the sources of traditional medicines that the communities use for treatment of health problems.
Local communities respect Sacred Natural Sites because they attach all these values to the places. And their underlying principle is that “If you respect a power, you have to also respect the place where it resides.”
If the Sacred Natural Site is a forest, for instance, it is a taboo to cut a tree in the Sacred Natural Site. Nor is hunting in the area allowed. The entire area is a respected area. Then, one can boldly claim that ecological value of Sacred Natural Sites emanates from the spiritual value that the community attaches to them.
MELCA-Ethiopia, in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Culture and Tourism and Jimma University, has organized a bio-cultural heritage workshop from 4-5 December 2015 in Jimma University. Conservation of Sacred Natural Sites in Ethiopia and corresponding challenges were the main focus of the workshop. The foregoing has been an idea strongly reflected about Sacred Natural Sites during the discussions at the workshop.
Sacred Natural Site custodians and elders from Bale, Suba-sebeta and Sheka were among the participants to this workshop. In fact they were the owners and main actors of the workshop. They were united in their discussion about Sacred Natural Sites. The elders talked about their forests, boulders, springs, wetlands, lakes, trees, animals and rivers as sacred. They said that they are sources of their identity and wisdom, places for the collection of medicinal plants and animals, centers of customary law and critical for resilience. In general, social, economic, cultural, spiritual and ecological values of Sacred Natural Sites were reflected and discussed.
Nonetheless, despite their multifaceted values and benefits for the community and a range of laws, both international and local, for their protection it is discussed that Sacred Natural Sites are getting little protection from the government and are threatened. The culture of respecting Sacred Natural Sites and gathering in there for the common good is gradually diminishing. All that erode culture also affects Sacred Natural Sites as they are central to the culture of the people.
Some of the major challenges facing conservation of sacred natural sites, as identified and agreed up on by the elders are:
- Poor implementation of the national and international laws and policies
- Lack of collaboration and coordination among stakeholders around activities in relation to conservation of SNS
- Lack of awareness regarding conservation and protection of SNS
- Absence of strong follow up, monitoring and evaluation for conservation of SNS
- Negative interventions by individuals and institutions that have little regard or understanding to these places and who see them as either the signs of backwardness or non sacredness.
The role of various stakeholders, including the government, to curb the challenges and their impact on Sacred Natural Sites have also been one of the points discussed in detail during the workshop.
Finally, participants of the workshop have released a joint statement applauding conservation of Sacred Natural Sites. The following are recommendations stated in the joint statement:
- In light of their value as well as the threats that are coming both from inside and outside forces, the government shall enact and implement laws for identification and conservation of SNS
- In collaboration with relevant and appropriate stakeholders, the government should arrange organizational structure and coordinated action for identification, demarcation and certification of SNS
- The government should strengthen and expand the ecological, cultural, spiritual, economic, social and healing values of SNS
- The government shall design and implement participatory and continuous follow up, monitoring and support system that would strengthen conservation of SNS
Representatives of the FDRE Ministry of Culture and Tourism and Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritages have expressed, at the closing session of the workshop, that their respective offices will pay due attention for conservation of Sacred Natural Sites hereafter. Researchers from Jimma University have also agreed to conduct relevant researches and support the values of Sacred Natural Sites with research findings.
About 100 people, including elders from Bale, Suba-sebeta and Sheka as well as government officials from FDRE Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritages, Oromia National regional State Culture and Tourism Bureau, researchers from Jimma University Social Science and Humanities Faculty, representatives of NGOs working on conservation of bio-cultural diversity and journalists have attended the workshop.