In Estonia, around 2,500 traditional sacred natural sites covering large areas of land are known to contain significant spiritual, cultural and natural heritage values. Further research and documentation are expected to reveal a network of as much as 7,000 sacred natural sites in the country alone.
With the support of the Estonian Ministry of the Environment, the NGO “Estonian House of Taara and Native Religions” (Taarausuliste ja Maausuliste Maavalla Koda) has translated IUCN-UNESCO’s “Sacred Natural Sites – Guidelines for Protected Area Managers“ into Estonian.
The NGO, in cooperation with state environmental institutions, is now able to use these Guidelines to improve recognition, protection and promotion of sacred natural sites. The Guidelines will contribute to the implementation of the Ministry of Culture’s national conservation plan for sacred natural sites and will be supported by training of state officials and custodians of sacred natural sites. To this end a support group was formed by 17 Estonian Parliamentarians in the spring of 2011.
The Guidelines are listed 16th in the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA)’s Best Practice Series and have been developed by the Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas (CSVPA) of the WCPA in partnership with IUCN and UNESCO.
“The Guidelines are in high demand. Since their launch at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in 2008 they have been translated from English into Russian, Spanish and Estonian while the French and Japanese versions are in the making” says Mr. Robert Wild, co-author of the Guidelines and Chair of CSVPA. With support from the WCPA and the Christensen Fund, the Guidelines are currently being tested, reviewed and expanded with new case studies by the Sacred Natural Sites Initiative.
The Estonian case of sacred natural sites conservation is one of approximately 35 cases that are part of the Delos Initiative, an initiative working to improve the conservation of sacred natural sites in technologically developed countries. “During the third workshop of the Delos Initiative in Inari in 2010 I learned about the efforts of IUCN’s Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values to protect and conserve sacred natural sites worldwide. I realised that the Guidelines would be a very effective tool for conserving sacred natural sites in Estonia“ says Mr. Atho Kaasik, the elder of Maavalla Koda.
Although the total area of Estonia is no more than 47,000 km2, several different linguistic and cultural areas are found within its territory, and hence there are regional variations in the types and names of sacred natural sites. For example, rocks and trees used for healing are common in the western part of the country. Communal sites bearing the name of hiis (sacred grove) are spread in the northern and western parts of the country. The tradition of cross-trees associated with funeral custom is preserved only in South-East Estonia.
From a wider perspective, Estonian sacred natural sites form part of Fenno-Ugric sacred site traditions. For historical reasons, Estonian traditional religion maausk has largely evolved as familial, personal and confidential. Sacred natural sites are used for praying, healing, asking for blessing to one's marriage, giving a name to one's child, counselling, making offerings and carrying out various rituals, especially on the holy days of the folk calendar. Today, sacred natural sites are under threat of extinction mainly because of lack of legal regulation and awareness.