Guest Editorial - Revisiting the Asian Philosophy of Protected Areas

At the Workshop on Protected Areas Management held in Akita, Japan in 2009, several of the participants propositioned that Asia has an alternative approach to biodiversity conservation and protected area management that needed to be revitalised.  

FIGURE. Convergence between Formal and Traditional Protected Area Management Principles

Subsequently the IUCN Asia Regional Office in Bangkok commissioned the author to conduct a research on the Asian Philosophy of Protected Areas which was presented in the plenary of the inaugural Asian Parks Congress, which was held in Sendai, Japan in 2013. The research started by reviewing the so-called Western approach to protected area management but halfway through the review process, the researcher realised that it was too simplistic to take a ‘Western vs. Asian’ discourse.

In fairness, the ‘Western’ models adopted or inherited by many Asian countries were essentially colonial models of protected area management, in which local and indigenous communities were often displaced to areas outside the Park boundary. However, the Western model has evolved since the 1980s to be more inclusive and co-management approaches and ICCAs are now common in the governance of PAs.

What is more interesting is that societies in Asia have been practising traditional conservation efforts based on the protection of sacred natural sites as well as other resources management approaches such as Satoyama, Subak and Tagal, etc. In the context of sacred natural sites, Allerton (2009a) wrote that Southeast Asian cultures have a common belief that the world inhabited by humans was intersected by a spiritual invisible dimension which she calls “spiritual landscape”.

These spiritual and religious-based phenomena have evolved traditionally and are considered to be the fundamental pre-conditions which led to the conservation and protection of these areas. In many Asian countries, sacred natural sites have been shown to have a major effect on conservation, ecology and environment due to the special precautions and restrictions associated with them.

In traditional Asian societies oral stories and myths, especially in relation to their surrounding natural environment, are handed down from generation to generation, which created the awareness and recognition of the presence of sacred natural sites (Wild and McLeod, 2008). In this respect, mountains have always been special to humanity as spiritual symbols and so are forests and trees, in the form of sacred groves and feng shui forests, etc., which have spiritual relationships to the teachings and beliefs of Hinduism, Buddism, Islam, Judaism and Animism. In essence, these sacred natural sites are supposed to contain ‘numina’ or sprits, deities or holy presence (Bryne, 2010), which are highly respected and protected by the community even though they do not have legal jurisdiction over them.

In the Asian setting, nature and culture have been woven together naturally like a single tapestry which embodies the concept of cultural landscape. Essentially it endogenously features an eternal relationship between the natural environment, humans and their culture. More often than not, Asian traditions and beliefs have been shaped by the merging of indigenous animism with mainstream religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity which are evident in Thailand, India, Indonesia and the Philippines (Gottlieb and Natadetcha-Sponsel, 2004; Allerton, 2009b; Byrne, 2010; Sampang, 2010; Verschuuren et. al, 2010).

It should be highlighted that there have been doubts among sections of the scientific community about the ecological value of sacred sites natural and their lack of legal protection mechanism, especially in light of increased visitation. However, Verschuuren et. al, (2010) and Pungetti et. al, (2012) provide ample evidence that; i) scared natural sites have been accepted by mainstream faiths; ii) they sometimes contain more biodiversity than formal protected areas; and iii) that their contribution towards biodiversity value warrants inclusion in national conservation strategies. Ramakrishnan (1996) pointed out that because sacred natural sites such as sacred groves in India were closely linked to taboos and prohibitions, they limited human activity and thus encouraged integrated nutrient cycling that resulted in the presence of many ecologically and socially valuable plant species. Dudley et. al, (2009) conducted more than 100 scientific studies on sacred groves in Asia and Africa and reported their global importance in terms of biodiversity conservation.

Besides sacred natural sites, traditional resource management approaches in Asia such as Satoyama (Japan), Subak (Bali) and Tagal (Sabah, Malaysia), etc. systems resonate well with contemporary approaches such as Adaptive Management (Holling, 1986, Berkes, 2012). In essence there is a form of convergence emerging between the ‘formal’ protected area system with the traditional resource management approaches in Asia.

FIGURE. Convergence between Formal and Traditional Protected Area Management Principles

The launching of the Asia Protected Areas Partnership (APAP) at the World Parks Congress in 2014 provides the platform for countries in Asia to exchange knowledge and experiences to further enhance protected area management. Interestingly the governance of PAs in Asia is also evolving towards a more inclusive approach as revealed during the recent Workshop on Collaborative Management of Protected Areas organised by APAP in Ishigaki, Japan (November, 2015). To this end, Asia needs a paradigm shift by rediscovering and celebrating its ancient wisdom, traditional ecological knowledge and philosophy in developing contemporary approaches in protected area management. The empowerment of local and indigenous communities is imperative for this paradigm shift to take place and so is learning from Asian (and non-Asian) countries. Last but not least, the inclusive governance models should include faith groups within Asian so as to leverage on the ecologically sustainable tenets of each major religion in Asia such as the powerful notion of khalifah (custodian) in Islam. By marrying science and religion, ethical based conservation could complement scientific knowledge in providing some of the solutions for the contemporary problems such as the threat to biodiversity due to climate change, etc.

List of References

  • Allerton, C. (2009a). Introduction: Spiritual Landscapes of Southeast Asia. Anthropological Forum. Taylor and Francis. 19(3): 235-251
  • Allerton, C. (2009b). Static Crosses and Working Spirits: Anti-Syncretism and Agricultural Animism in Catholic West Flores. Anthropological Forum: A Journal of Social Anthropology and Comparative Sociology. 19(3): 271-287
  • Berkes, F. (2012). Sacred Ecology. Third Edition. Routledge.
  • Byrne, D. (2010). ‘The Enchanted Earth: Numinous Sacred Sites’. Sacred Natural Sites: Conserving Nature and Culture (Verschuuren, B., Wild, R., McNeely, J.A., and Oviedo, G. (eds). Earthscan. 53-61.
  • Dudley, N., Bhagwat, S., Higgins-Zogib, L., Lassen, B., Verschuuren, B., and Wild, R. (2010). ‘Conservation of Biodiversity in Sacred Natural Sites in Asia and Africa: A Review of the Scientific Literature’. Sacred Natural Sites: Conserving Nature and Culture (Verschuuren, B., Wild, R., McNeely, J.A., and Oviedo, G. (eds). Earthscan. 19-32.
  • Gottlieb, R. and Natadecha-Sponsel, N. (2004). ‘Illuminating Darkness: The Monk-Cave-Bat-Ecosystem Complex in Thailand’. This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment, Roger S. Gottlieb (ed). New York, NY: Routledge. 134-144.
  • Hamzah, A., Ong. D.J., Pampanga, D. (2013). Asian Philosophy of Protected Areas. IUCN Asia Regional Office. Bangkok.
  • Holling, C.S. (1978). Adaptive Environmental Assessment and Management. Blackburn Press.
  • Pungetti, G. (2012). Sacred species and sites: dichotomies, concepts and new direction in biocultural diversity conservation. Sacred Species and Sites (Pungetti, G.; Oviedo, G. and Hooke, D. eds.). Cambridge. 13-27.
  • Ramakrishnan P. S. (1996). Conserving the sacred: from species to landscapes. Nat. Resour. 32: 11–19.
  • Sampang, A. G. (2010). ‘Towards a Sustainable Management and Enhanced Protection of Sacred Marine Areas at Palawan’s Coron Ancestal Domain,
  • Philippines’. Sacred Natural Sites: Conserving Nature and Culture (Verschuuren, B., Wild, R., McNeely, J.A., and Oviedo, G. (eds). Earthscan. p254-262.
  • Verschuuren, B., Wild, R., McNeely, J.A., and Oviedo, G. (eds). (2010). Sacred Natural Sites: Conserving Nature and Culture. Earthscan.
  • Wild, R and McLeod, C. (eds.). (2008). Sacred Natural Sites: Guidelines for Protected Area Managers. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN

Amran Hamzah,
Professor of University of Technology Malaysia (Universiti Teknologi Malaysia)

Work area: 
Social Policy
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