Religion and conservation

Leslie E. Sponsel, a professor of anthropology at Cornell, has an interesting article at Earth Portal ((Sponsel, Leslie (Lead Author); David Casagrande (Topic Editor). 2007. “Sacred places and biodiversity conservation.” In: Encyclopedia of Earth. Eds. Cutler J. Cleveland (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment). [First published September 22, 2007; Last revised October 18, 2007; Retrieved October 20, 2007].)) on “Sacred places and biodiversity conservation.”

Since the 1990s, sacred places have emerged as a new frontier for interdisciplinary research on their own merits and also for their actual or potential relevance for biodiversity conservation. This reflects the emerging recognition in many sectors of the important role that religion and spirituality can play in environmentalism. In some ways attention to these phenomena is a natural development. Even secular approaches to environmental protection often become a kind of sacralization of a space, such as pursuing wilderness as an ideal. This is exemplified by John Muir (1838-1914), who experienced the forested mountains of the Western United States as a sacred place, and who was especially influential in the creation of the national park system.

Well, we saw something very similar in the previous post, with the “natural agriculture” of the adherents of the Shumei cult in Japan. Pity that Prof. Sponsel doesn’t deal with agricultural biodiversity at all in his article, it would have added an interesting dimension. The “sacralization of a space” doesn’t only apply to wilderness. Think of the certification of organic farms, or the agricultural landscapes inscribed in the list of World Heritage Sites.

Conserving crop wild relatives

A paper just out in Biological Conservation discusses crop wild relatives (CWR) in the UK. ((Creation and use of a national inventory of crop wild relatives. Biological Conservation. In Press, Corrected Proof. Available online 27 September 2007. Nigel Maxted, Maria Scholten, Rosalind Codd and Brian Ford-Lloyd.)) The authors include some of the same British boffins who wrote a global survey of CWR conservation. The paper describes how to develop a comprehensive national plan for the conservation of CWR, using the UK as an example. Unfortunately, it is behind a paywall, but I’ll summarize the main points.

First, of course, you need to know what you’re dealing with. A UK national inventory of CWR was developed as part of the EU-funded PGR Forum project. It contains 15 families, 413 genera, 1955 species (44 endemic) — that’s 65% of the native flora. So then you have to prioritize. For example, 13 of the UK’s CWR species are considered threatened according to IUCN criteria and one is apparently extinct in the wild ( the grass Bromus interruptus). The authors ran an iterative algorithm on the distribution data for about 250 CWR species ((Chosen because of their potential economic value and perceived threat level.)) to identify the smallest number of areas which would contain the largest number of species. Seventeen 10×10 km grid squares were selected within which could be found two thirds of the priority CWR species.

To what extent are these “hotspots” already protected? Interestingly, none of them “did not overlap with existing UK protected areas.” What’s now needed is to confirm the presence of the target species in the protected areas and come up with management plans specifically aimed at the CWR.

Disappearing languages, disappearing agrobiodiversity

There are about 7,000 languages currently spoken around the world. By 2100, there will half that, if we’re lucky. That’s according to Harrison and Gregory Anderson of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Oregon, who “traveled the world to interview the last speakers of critically endangered languages as part of the National Geographic Society’s Enduring Voices Project.” Here’s a telling quote from Harrison Anderson:

Most of what we know about species and ecosystems is not written down anywhere, it’s only in people’s heads.

Just compare the map of hotspots of language loss with those of centres of crop origin and diversity. When the last native speakers of those 3,500 doomed languages go in the next century or so, they’ll be taking with them irreplaceable knowledge of agricultural biodiversity. Knowledge which we’ll need to make the most of that agrobiodiversity, and indeed to conserve it in situ (should we wish to) ((Or, indeed, should we be able to, given what climate change is going to do. Anyway, thanks to Ola for pointing out the article.)).