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Spirituality a key theme in IUCN major international wildlife congress this year

September 20, 2016:

For the first time the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Conservation Congress this year included Spirituality and Conservation as a key theme in this important meeting.

This was an important step in promoting and celebrating conservation-religion partnerships to safeguarding threatened species and places.

ARC’s Wildlife & Forests Programme Director, Chantal Elkin, spent the first week of September in Hawaii at this global gathering bringing together some 10,000 government and NGO representatives and environmental experts.

The IUCN’s international gatherings happen every four years in different locations and are one of the main events on the conservation calendar. They attract conservation giants including primatologist Jane Goodall, Time Magazine’s “Hero of the Planet” marine biologist Sylvia Earle, and ‘the father of biodiversity’, E.O. Wilson - who was one of the first biologists in favour of faiths and conservation groups working together.

During the meeting the government members of the Congress passed more than 80 motions, which although not legally binding are highly influential and set priorities for IUCN’s work.
He talks about that here.

The meeting this time was held in Hawaii. Follow the outcomes here.

The IUCN released its new Red List of Threatened Species, in which the world’s known species are categorised according to their level of threat.

For example, the giant panda was downlisted to a ”less threatened” status, due to effective forest protection and reforestation in China, although its main food source, bamboo, is in danger of decline due to climate change. Four of the six great ape species – the Eastern Gorilla (less than 5,000), Western Gorilla, Bornean Orangutan and Sumatran Orangutan all of which have lost some 80% of their populations in just three generations , were ’uplisted’ to Critically Endangered, only a step away from extinction. The Chimpanzee and Bonobo – –are in only slightly better shape, listed as Endangered.

During the meeting the government members of the Congress passed more than 80 motions, which although not legally binding are highly influential and set priorities for IUCN’s work.

The motions focused on pressing environmental issues such as the illegal wildlife trade. They included providing higher protection to threatened species including the pangolin, a scaly anteater that is the most heavily trafficked animal in the world, hunted for its scales and meat used in traditional medicines and luxury food. The IUCN was also the first global body to call for every country in the world to ban domestic ivory trade in order to protect elephants, whose populations are being decimated due to demand for their tusks.

Of particular interest to ARC’s members, the IUCN 2016 Commitments also call for linking spirituality, religion, culture and conservation and engaging and empowering youth in order to achieve a ‘Culture of Conservation'.

The Spirituality and Conservation theme at the IUCN meeting marked a key shift in how conservationists are taking into consideration not only other people’s but their own sense that nature is special, and in many important ways, sacred.
They state: The values and wisdom of indigenous peoples, Elders, and the world’s rich faith and spiritual communities offer a deeper understanding of our connections with nature, and help inform the necessary transformational changes in the financial, technological, industrial, governance and regulatory systems of our societies.

To incorporate such insights, spiritual leaders and the conservation community need to come together to share the values that connect us.” (More on this here)

A motion was also passed that prohibits extractive industries like mining, oil and gas exploration and agriculture inside protected areas, including sacred natural sites, which are so important to traditional and religious communities around the world.

There was also an emphasis on “nature-based solutions”, which protect ecosystems while addressing critical human well-being issues outlined in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, like human health, economic livelihoods, food and water security and disaster risk reduction.

(More on the IUCN motions here).

Spiritual Journey

Spirituality and religion are not often discussed in the world of mainstream environmental conservation but one of the six themes running through the Congress this year was the ’Spiritual Journey’ theme, which effectively meant that there were workshops, meetings and discussions around the issue of spirituality, religion, culture and nature.

The meeting had strong participation from native Hawaiians speaking about their connection to the natural world.

The pangolin is the most heavily trafficked animal in the world, hunted for its scales and meat used in traditional medicines and luxury food.
”They spoke beautifully about how when the earth is harmed, they feel it in their very bodies, such is their feeling that they are a part of the earth and the earth is part of them,” Ms Elkin said.

”This springs from their Hawaiian beliefs but we also heard how the Pope’s environmental encyclical has impacted them. Some Hawaiians are leading nature retreats for children, where they set a space aside for contemplation of the Pope’s Laudato Si statement about how nature is holy and is to be respected.” With over two billion Christians in the world, the Pope’s words can have a widespread impact on the way people treat nature. A conservationist spoke in the meeting about how he was so moved by the Pope’s encyclical that it has influenced how he is fundamentally approaching the way he goes about his conservation work managing protected areas in Costa Rica.

The meetings also focused on the protection of sacred natural sites – holy areas occurring in nature, such as holy rivers or mountains, or temples and religious monuments in natural areas. An IUCN working group is developing guidelines and trainings for managers of protected areas around the world on how to engage traditional communities in the management of such sites.

Ms Elkin, on behalf of ARC, led a roundtable discussion on religion and conservation, where they discussed some of the inherent challenges in faith and conservation partnerships, such as miscommunication betweeen the two groups. They also discussed how more and more such partnerships are taking place and how more can be fostered. For example through a deep listening by conservationists to faith values and perspectives and by recognising, encouraging and supporting the agents of change in the conservation and faith worlds who can broker such partnerships.

There was a discussion around the fact that there are now many calls for religious communities to become engaged in the conservation of nature. These range from the Pope to Indonesia’s national Islamic council, which has recently issued two Islamic edicts on protecting the environment, to Buddhist leaders in China calling for humane mercy release practices, to Hindu leaders in India calling for ’greener pilgrimage’ to sacred sites inside protected areas.

Participants felt that our challenge now is to translate these high level calls into action on the ground to protect, in practical ways, the species and places that are so under threat.

The Journey theme culminated in a two-hour high level discussion that included the former Chairman of the national Islamic council of Indonesia and ally of our work, Imam Professor Dr K.H. Muhammad Sirajuddin Syamsuddin; Peter Harris, head of AROCHA, a key Christian environmental organisation; Masami Saionji of the World Peace Prayer Society; Rabbi Sergio Bergman, Minister of the Environment, Argentina; and Dr Kanahele, Hawaiian Spiritual Leader.

“It was a fascinating discussion to a packed audience,” Elkin said.

“One point that was emphasised was the faiths’ commitment to people and places, and how much that is needed in environmental conservation, where long term programmes are most successful.”

The Spirituality and Conservation theme at the IUCN meeting marked a key shift in how conservationists are taking into consideration not only other people’s but their own sense that nature is special, and in many important ways, sacred.

It is ARC’s hope, however, that by the next meeting in four year’s time that it will not be so novel a concept, and instead an approach that is much more integrated into conservation perspectives and practices.



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