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Transcending the Culture–Nature Divide in Cultural Heritage


The WCPA’s Natural Sacred Sites Taskforce: A critique of conservation biology’s view of popular religion

Denis Byrne, Office of Environment and Heritage, NSW, Australia, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia

The environmental anthropologist, Anna Tsing (2005:12), refers to modern-day nature conservation as a form of ‘globally circulating knowledge’. In this chapter I focus on the way local religious systems have attracted the interest of conservation biologists who have come to see that in many parts of the world – and their attention is particularly on the developing world – religious beliefs and practices turn out to have ‘conservation outcomes’ (e.g. Verschuuren 2007; Mallarach 2008; Wild and McLeod 2008; Verschuuren and Wild 2010). These take the form of sites and landscapes which, primarily because of their religious significance to particular cultural groups, have retained ‘high conservation value’. There are, for instance, sacred mountains like Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka (Wickramasinghe 2003), the lulic (sacred) forests of East Timor (McWilliam 2003), and the sacred groves of India (Boraiah et al. 2003), all of them being situations where forest environments have been preserved (though usually not in a primary state).

Increasingly, knowledge about these places and the religious beliefs and practices that have sustained them flows along international circuits, particularly under the auspices of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with the direction of flow mainly being from the south to the north and from the east to the west. There tends to be a reverse flow of conservation management and protected area management expertise.

Tsing takes as the topic of her book, Friction: An ethnography of global connection (2005), the tensions that commonly develop between commercial interests, conservationists, and the Indigenous groups who inhabit environments whose resources and biodiversity have attracted global interest. The relations between these groups and interests often occur in the form of collaborations but, she observes: ‘Collaboration is not a simple sharing of information’ (2005:13). She goes on to note that: ‘In standardizing global knowledge … truths that are incompatible are suppressed. Globally circulating knowledge creates new gaps even as it grows through the frictions of encounter’ (2005:13). Looking to the relatively recent engagement of conservationists with what have in nature conservation circles come to be called ‘sacred natural sites’,1 I suggest that the knowledge now circulating globally about this form of the ‘sacred’ tends to be characterised by a certain elision or gap. Reading through the case-study literature on ‘sacred natural sites’ it becomes clear that most of these places are locally believed to embody or be occupied by spirit beings or deities and to be invested with supernatural powers – for instance, the miraculous power to cure illness or bring rain. The term ‘numinous’, indicating the presence of a divinity, is appropriate for them (Levy et al. 2006:11–14). Local people’s relationships with these places are characterised by magical practices directed at gaining access to their efficacy. It is also evident in the case-study literature, though, that its authors, who are predominantly conservation biologists, shy away from the idea of the magical-supernatural, as though there were something disreputable about it. My own impression, gained when it was requested that I avoid the term ‘supernatural’ in a chapter I was writing for one of these volumes (Byrne 2010), was of a certain squeamishness at the B-grade-movie flavour that the term seemed to the editors to convey.

In the volume in question, The Importance of Sacred Natural Sites for Biodiversity Conservation (UNESCO 2003), most of the contributions, which are in case-study form, begin with a fairly cursory description of the religious significance of certain areas (mostly forests) and then move to describe the biodiversity conservation measures which conservation advisors have implemented there. There is very little discussion of just how religious belief and practice has acted to conserve biodiversity. Indeed, the conservation measures put in place appear to be directed at conserving biodiversity for the sake of biodiversity rather than for its local religious value (a notable exception in that volume is Wickramasinghe’s (2003) chapter on Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka). The volume, overall, has an instrumentalist feel to it: environmental protection seems to be regarded as the inherent function and endpoint of religion.

Nature conservation in the non-Western world

The points I make about the ‘sacred natural sites’ literature, then, are firstly that there is an avoidance of the magical-supernatural and, secondly, that in the context of the ‘sacred natural sites’ program, religion is equated with conservation. I will return to the latter point later, turning now to what I see as an inclination to domesticate popular religion by filtering out the magical. To begin with, I suggest this represents a protestantisation of the religious systems conservationists encounter in the non-Western world, which is to say that conservation biology imposes on them a worldview that developed out of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation. The Reformation introduced a relatively narrow view of the ways in which God was manifest. Whereas in medieval Christianity God was a living presence in the landscape, manifest in the miraculous efficacy flowing from saintly people, sacred relics and sacred places, in the Protestant view, particularly the Calvinist view, religion was to be a matter between one’s soul and a god who dwelt in heaven (Eire 1986). This effectively removed God from nature as an active, causal force, opening the natural world up to understanding through learned inquiry. It is in this sense that one speaks of the ‘disenchantment’ of the post-Reformation landscape.

The Reformation also produced what Charles Taylor (2007:300) refers to as the ‘buffered’ European self, a self with a mind and body more bounded and insulated from the cosmos than the medieval European self. In terms most relevant to us this meant a self that was less vulnerable to malign and potentially malign spirits – ranging from Satan to nature spirits – whose presence in a plethora of numinous objects and places meant that ordinary people in medieval times lived in a climate of anxiety which is difficult for we moderns now to imagine. This buffering was reinforced by Renaissance humanism, the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, all of which, not incidentally, comprised the cultural-intellectual environment within which the field of natural history emerged, natural history in turn being the generic field in which conservation biology has its antecedents. In summary, the Reformation was a key step in the emphatic rejection of a European conception of nature which has important generic resonances with the religious beliefs and practices which have produced and sustained the ‘sacred natural sites’ found in the non-Western world.

I need to make clear here that I am not suggesting the religious systems of traditional societies in the non-Western world are directly comparable to those of pre-Reformation Christianity, nor, of course, that they are survivors of a lineally prior form of human religion. My point, rather, is that the Reformation ushered in a religious worldview that, in its rejection of the supernatural, marked it off from medieval Christianity and also put it at odds not just with popular religion in the non-West (e.g. the animist traditions of folk religion in Southeast Asia, as well as popular Buddhism and popular Islam in that part of the world) but with popular Catholicism as it continues to flourish in the Mediterranean and many parts of northern Europe as well as in Central and South America, Africa, and the Philippines. These traditions of folk religion all have in common a belief that the divine is manifest as ‘real presence’ in the environment and that the numinous quality of ‘sacred’ landforms, trees, animals, and artefacts confers agency upon them. To say that Protestantism (and Counter-Reformation Catholicism) is at odds with this religious view is no exaggeration: through the nineteenth century and continuing today, a huge amount of Christian missionary effort in the non-West has been directed at eradicating it. The nature conservation movement is not engaged in this missionary project but its inclination to de-emphasise the supernatural, often to the point of effacing it, amounts I suggest to a protestantisation of non-Western popular religion. The same point can be made about cultural heritage practice in Asia (Byrne 2009).

It may seem to represent a curious back-flip that Western nature conservationists and conservation biologists would now embrace ‘sacred natural sites’, with the implication this seems to carry that the secular-rationalist underpinnings of Western conservationism are being set aside. I argue, though, that these underpinnings are very evident in the approach conservationists have taken to the ‘sacred natural sites’ program. As noted earlier, there is a tendency to ‘domesticate’ the magical-supernatural realm that contextualises these sites; a tendency to portray people’s relations with the sites in terms of a reverence for nature which is compatible with the post-Reformation worldview. This aligns with the kind of ‘distant’ reverence for nature we see emerging in Protestant and Counter-Reformation Catholic Europe, a view of nature as sacred (insofar as it was created by God) but not numinous. Put more simply, nature is taken to be a work of God rather than a realm of gods. This is a long way from the popular religiosity of the ‘sacred natural’ in Southeast Asian cultures in which the tree, the rock formation, or the cave is an independent divine agent, animated with supernatural force. The instrumental-rationalist aspect of the post-Reformation Western view gives humans a monopoly on agency: humans act on nature, either to exploit or conserve it. This view concedes that nature has effects on humans, as when a hurricane or drought destroys our crops, but the notion that nature – in the form for instance of a tree, a rock, or a forest – could launch a spiritual assault on us, or could miraculously intercede to help us, is alien to it.

It is worth remembering that Western nature conservation, as a discourse and field of practice, is not a recent arrival in the non-Western world; it has quite a long history there. Mary Louise Pratt (1992:31) observes that during the European Age of Discovery, spanning the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, ‘One by one the planet’s life forms were to be drawn out of the tangled threads of their life surroundings and rewoven into European-based patterns of global unity and order’. Western nature conservation consolidated its position in what we now refer to as the developing world as part of the West’s imperial-colonial expansion following the Age of Discovery (e.g. Grove 1995; Dunlap 1999; Beinart and Hughes 2007). Much of the work of Western botanists and zoologists in the colonies was directed at helping develop ‘under-used’ landscapes and at more efficiently exploiting natural resources (e.g. Kathirithamby-Wells 2005). But the unrestrained harvesting of natural resources often proved to be unsustainable, resulting in incidents of environmental collapse and a general environmental degradation that by the second half of the nineteenth century began to seriously alarm colonial authorities (Grove 1995; Griffiths and Robin 1997; Adams 2003:29–33). Something similar was occurring in the settler colonies: in Australia, for instance, a series of droughts led to the ruination of farmers and to severe soil loss (Flannery 1994).

As environmental historians have shown, modern nature conservation thus developed to a large extent out of colonialism’s effort to ameliorate the environmental damage it itself had inflicted (e.g. Grove 1995). Nature conservation was thus integral to the project of colonialism and its position in the colonial and the post-colonial state has in many respects been one of mutuality, though the field may perceive itself as being opposed to state projects and elite interests.

Getting into bed with Asian modernity

Across Asia, a characteristic feature of nationalist movements and of the independent post-colonial nation states they gave rise to has been their antipathy towards ‘superstition’ (Byrne 2012). The face of Western civilisation that was presented to Asia by Western missionaries, traders, engineers and other experts during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was one that emphasised rationality and science. Most intellectuals in Asia willingly embraced this view as they embarked on their own programs of national reform and modernisation. In China, Japan and Siam, intellectuals realised that only by matching the West’s science and technology would they be able to prevent their societies being completely overrun. In Burma, the East Indies and the other Western colonies in Asia, Indigenous nationalists saw Western-style rationalism as a key to being able eventually to shake off their colonial masters. For most modernising reformers and nationalists in Asia, popular religion, steeped in ‘superstition’, was seen as an impediment to this kind of ‘progress’.

In China, popular religion encompasses cults to local deities and to natural divine forces (e.g. Dean 1993; Feuchtwang 2001; Chau 2006). In Theravada Buddhist Thailand and Cambodia, it comprises animist cults, local cults to ancestral spirits, and the unorthodox popular practice of Buddhism where the emphasis is upon magical efficacy for this-worldly benefits rather than with transcendence (e.g. Tambiah 1970; Wijeyewardene 1986; Jackson 1999). The anti-superstition campaigns launched by reform-minded modernists in China were directed against village-based cults to local deities and to a lesser extent against popular Buddhism. In the first four decades of the twentieth century, as the anti-superstition campaigns unfolded, ‘probably more than half of the million Chinese temples that existed in 1898 were emptied of all religious equipment and activity’ (Goossaert 2006:308). This of course was prior to the 1949 Communist Revolution and its suppression of superstition and takes no account of the destruction of temples wrought by the Cultural Revolution (1966–76).

Rather than weaning people off belief in the supernatural, however, modernity was experienced by many in China as a disaster that only the supernatural could mitigate. Detailed ethnographies and histories that have become available in the last decade or so (e.g. Jing 1996; Mueggler 2001; Flower 2004; Yang 2004; Chau 2006) paint a picture of local people struggling to preserve not just temples and statues of gods but a ‘moral landscape’ (Flower 2004) in which every stream, crossroads, field, tree, and shrine was integrated into an ecology of sacred cause and effect, a landscape occupied by gods, ghosts, living people and the spirits of their ancestors. Flower (2004), for instance, shows how catastrophes like the Great Leap Forward famine of 1959–61 were seen locally as being partly a consequence of the damage inflicted on the divine landscape.

The establishment of post-colonial communist states in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos saw the implementation of anti-superstition campaigns similar to those in China. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam (1954–76) in North Vietnam energetically set out to eradicate popular participation in life cycle rituals, the giving of offerings to spirits, and the practice of paying for the services of spirit mediums, all of which were considered to waste the precious resources of the poor (P. Taylor 2007:29). In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge suppressed all religion (Kiernan 1996) while in Laos the communist Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, coming to power in 1975, disbanded the two main Buddhist clerical orders and aimed to eliminate superstition, along with other social evils. This policy continued through the 1990s in Laos though it is considered, by one of the key commentators, to have been ‘one of the least successful of the regime’s campaigns’ (Evans 1998:68).

Siam, like China, was never colonised in a primary sense but, as well as being exposed to Christian missionary influence that was virulently opposed to ‘superstition’, the royal government and the elite were deeply conscious of European standards of civilisation and were highly sensitive to Western criticism of themselves as being in any way uncivilised (e.g. Thongchai 2000). Elsewhere (Byrne 2009) I have reviewed in some detail the manner in which the modern nation state in Siam (and in Thailand, after the country’s name was changed in 1939) has sought to undermine belief in the magical-supernatural which has been common both to popular Buddhism and the localised cults of folk religion that many or even most Thais have at least some involvement in.

I am not, of course, equating the activities of nature conservationists in Asia with the anti-superstition campaigns reviewed above. What I do want to do is point to a certain alignment between the way modernity has played out in Asia over the last century or so and the modernist character of Western nature conservation. Both nature conservation and heritage conservation tend to be seen as an obvious good and for that reason, I suggest, most practitioners in those fields are not inclined to spend much time examining the larger political and historical context of their work. These can lead these fields to become complicit – unintentionally and probably unconsciously – in authoritarian programs of the modern state that in Asia and elsewhere have taken such a heavy toll on local cultures over the modern period. It is sobering to consider, as James Scott has done so eloquently in his book Seeing Like a State (1999), that all the efforts to suppress popular religion that have been mentioned in this section were inflicted on local people ‘for their own good’. They were intended to make the world a better place; they were seen by the state and elite interests, in other words, as an obvious good.

(Un)level playing fields

From the preceding section it will be clear that the modern state in Asia has adopted a view of nature which has much in common with the post-Reformation European view. It would be mistaken, however, to think that Asia has simply imported a Western secular-rationalist construction of nature or that it has bowed to the West’s ambitions to universalise its own worldview. The modern state in Asia has opposed superstition firstly because superstition has been seen as an obstacle to the kind of progress that would allow it economical and political equity with the West and, secondly and perhaps most significantly, because the magical-supernatural has been seen to constitute a threat to the state’s ability to project its authority evenly across its territorial domain.

In Henri Lefebvre’s (1991) account of modern spatiality, capitalism encouraged the spread of an ‘abstract’ kind of space which was uniform, repetitive, quantifiable, predictable and manageable by the centralised institutions of the modern state. Modernity endeavours to mould the spaces it dominates (i.e. peripheral spaces) and it seeks, often by violent means, to ‘reduce the obstacles and resistance it encounters there’ (Lefebvre 1991:49). The obstacles it encounters are those forms of ‘absolute’ space comprised of places brought into being by individuals, families and communities by their bodies, imaginations and actions. It is not difficult to see how the landscapes of popular religion in Asia, populated as they are by numerous local sites of the divine, each one of which might be considered to be a node of supernatural power, inevitably imposes limitations on the modern state’s ambition to dominate space. Perhaps the best theorised account of modern spatiality in Asia has emerged from Mayfair Yang’s (2004) study of Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province, China. She finds that in common with capitalism, state socialism in China energetically set about corroding place-based local cultures. She examines how the Maoist state and its successors set about dismantling three categories of local religious space: the ritual space of lineages, the space of the tomb, and the space of local deity cults. Maoist centralisation of production and collectivisation of agriculture entailed the repression of superstitious practices and saw joint property of lineages confiscated, lineage halls and temples closed (and turned over to other uses such as schools) or demolished, and traditional burial discouraged or forbidden in favour of cremation. Yang also traces the re-emergence since the 1980s of each of these categories of formerly banned public ritual space in response to local resistance to, and state relaxation of, the social-spatial regime.

One of the prime instruments of the kind of spatial levelling that the modern state strives for is the map. In recent years, environmental anthropologists working in parts of Asia occupied by minority ‘tribal’ groups have devoted considerable attention to the way colonial governments, and then post-colonial governments, sought to extend their centralised authority across the territory of such groups partly via the technology of mapping. On colonial era maps, the forest habitats of these groups in places like Borneo were typically classified as ‘wasteland’ or ‘barren’ land and, as such, were appropriated by the state as unoccupied natural resource zones (Roseman 2003; Tsing 2003; Sowerwine 2004). The field systems and fixed villages of the lowland agricultural areas, by contrast, typically did find their way onto colonial maps and the people of these areas were recognised as holding traditional title to their fields and plantations.

The post-colonial governments of Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, rather than rejecting these maps, further elaborated them. The classification of tribal habitats as primary forest simplified the process of treating them as state resources that could be allocated as logging concessions and mining leases to national and international companies without reference to the people who inhabited them. Conscious of the repercussions of being left off the map, concerned anthropologists in the 1990s began working with local groups to produce maps that gave visibility to local constructions of terrain. The term ‘counter-mapping’ has been adopted for what might be described as this tactical deployment of cultural mapping (e.g. Peluso 1995; Brosius et al. 2005). These counter-maps show forests where former swiddens are regarded as storied historical sites, where individual trees are often known by their own names, and where ridges and gullies are intricately inscribed with the territories of spirits and deities.

The wilderness trope in nature conservation discourse, or what one commentator has termed ‘distant-nature conservationist mindset’ (Campbell 2005:285), has inclined conservationists to see tropical forests and other ‘high conservation value’ environments more as habitats of biodiversity than habitats of culture. Directing their attention to tropical zone forests in places like Indonesia, conservationists readily fell in with existing land classification systems that classified forests as existing in a ‘natural/primary’ state or as having been in this state before being ‘vandalised’ by shifting agriculturalists. The colonial mapping regimes thus found new subscribers among those who longed for unacculturated natural landscapes that were available to be saved. In this regard, as Ben Campbell (2005:301) provocatively asserts, uncritical conservationism ‘belongs to a colonial genealogy of perceiving foreign lands as terra nullius’. While the counter-mapping approach was developed mainly in response to the marginalisation of shifting agriculturalists, the push for increased agricultural productivity by post-colonial states and their Western advisors has often entailed a rationalisation of agriculture in which the role of religious belief and ritual in regulating agriculture locally has been downplayed or suppressed. Stephen Lansing (1991), for example, famously documented the way, in Bali, both Dutch colonial agricultural managers and Green Revolution reformers badly misread the key importance of ritual cycles and water temple networks in sustainably regulating irrigations flows through rice farms, leading to a range of problems including loss of soil fertility, crop disease outbreaks, and pollution of rivers and coral habitats.

The counter-mapping approach outlined above would seem to have obvious implications for the field of cultural heritage management. Elsewhere (Byrne 2008:612–613) I have drawn attention to the way Indigenous groups and their culturally constructed landscapes were left off colonial and post-colonial maps in New South Wales after Aboriginal people were displaced from their former country. From the mid-twentieth century the Aboriginal dimension of these landscapes was mapped as archaeological, which is to say that archaeological surveys populated the landscape with sites which, up until the 1980s, were described in a way that made no reference to contemporary Aboriginal people. Even after the 1980s there has been a tendency for places of spiritual significance to contemporary Aboriginal people not to be recorded in NSW. This is suggestive of a form of spatial levelling of the kind described by Lefebvre (1991) in which the local space of a cultural minority is reimagined in terms that make sense to the highly centralised modern state, in this case via a centralised heritage inventory.

It is interesting to reflect that the IUCN’s ‘sacred natural sites’ taskforce would very likely perceive itself to be directed against precisely the kind of uncritical conservationism I have been describing. And very clearly it does represent a deliberate move by a section of the conservation biology field to counter the more people-unfriendly approaches still adhered to by many of their colleagues. Dan Brockington’s (2002) term ‘fortress conservation’ neatly captures the essence of these approaches. And yet the tendency for the ‘sacred natural sites’ movement to downplay or even efface the magical supernatural demonstrates, I think, how easily well-intentioned initiatives can find themselves slipping into step with state programs that are distinctly unfriendly to local groups.

Getting beyond culture–nature duality

One of the hallmarks of Western modernity has been a dualistic or binary view of culture and nature. Nature is seen as categorically distinct from humanity and has been conceptualised as a resource for humanity. In Valerie Plumwood’s (2002) critique of the Western relationship with nature she pointed to the way Christianity has taken the spirituality of nature as something to be overcome or, alternatively, has perceived it ‘in the largely instrumental terms of leading us to a higher, non-earthly place’ (2002:219). She views culture-nature dualism as not just an assertion of difference but a definition of one against the other. Debbie Rose (2005) has developed her own critique of Western modernity’s culture-nature dualism from her experience in working as an anthropologist with Aboriginal groups in northern Australia whose relationships with nature are characterised by continuity and stand in marked contrast to the relationship of discontinuity that characterises Western relationships with nature. In the Aboriginal system, ‘sentience and agency is not a solely human prerogative’ (Rose 2005:302). The focus in this chapter is on the way the supernatural force attributed to certain non-humans (including certain sentient beings and artefacts) brings them into dialogue with us. Rose (2005:300), exploring the meaning of the Aboriginal phrase ‘country tells you’, makes clear that an essentially similar human responsiveness to agency in nature takes the form of reading a myriad of signs in the natural environment. Changes in the colour and smell of particular plants, for instance, indicate that it is time to start burning the bush. She writes that, ‘Within the communicative matrix of country, people respond to the patterns of connection and benefit’ (Rose 2005:300).

Lesley Head (2007:838) has recently noted that the critique of nature-culture dualism has scarcely registered in the field of archaeology where humans are still treated as if they were external to the natural system. In Australia, she observes, archaeologists now recognise that Aboriginal people regard plants and animals as well as waterholes and hills as sentient entities. She notes that we do not, however, regard them that way ourselves. We continue with the rationalist-positivist view of non-human species as constituting a kind of setting or background for our own lives or as resources for our own projects (Head 2007:838).

When Bruno Latour (2004:232) states that: ‘Traditional societies do not live in harmony with nature; they are unacquainted with it’, what he is gesturing towards is a situation in which nature in these societies is not perceived to be a separate category. These societies are unacquainted with the construct of nature as it exists in the West. ‘Non-Western cultures have never been interested in nature’ (2004:43, emphasis in the original) he thus maintains: ‘they have never adopted it as a category; they have never found a use for it’. So, rather than asserting that these cultures have no relationship with nature, Latour is saying their relationship is a non-hierarchical one in which nature is simply not conceived of in instrumental terms. This is part of a broader position on Latour’s part in which he maintains that in order for us to endure on this planet in the future, we will need to transcend nature-culture duality and position ourselves as actors living in democratic concert with non-human actors.

I maintain that the ‘sacred natural sites’ movement still exists substantially within the frame of nature-culture duality. In this frame local people who, for instance, worship sacred groves, are posited as revering nature in a manner that ‘naturally’ leads to nature conservation. This conception, however, seems unable to account for those situations in which so-called traditional cultures have been engaged in what we would see as acts of environmental destruction. Or rather, it seems able to account for such a situation only by assuming the religious systems of these cultures have collapsed or that the people involved have been coerced by external forces. This positions locals as merely passive in the face of change rather than crediting them as possible agents of change.

Yet if we think of the deforestation of large parts of northeast Thailand during the 1960s and 70s it is hard to see local people as other than active agents in this, which is not to say that external forces were not also at play. In northeast Thailand, forest area declined from 42% in 1961 to 14% in 1985 (Hunsaker 1996:3) in the face of commercial logging but also as a result of agricultural expansion driven largely by population growth. If we attend to the literature on spirit cults in Thailand (e.g. Tambiah 1970; Darlington 2003; Kamala 2003) it seems reasonable to think that many people living in the northeast at that time would have been concerned about the spiritual consequences of this assault on what in many cases were sacred trees and forests. There would, for instance, surely have been concern about forest spirits taking retribution by causing crop failure, illness among people and livestock, or other disasters.

But we also know that the practice of popular religion provided a means for propitiating, placating, and compensating forest spirits. Spirit cults in Thailand are characterised by an attribution to spirits of appetites, foibles and reactions very similar to those experienced by humans. Although spirits are considered capable of acting unilaterally against humans, this commonality creates a basis for engaging and negotiating with them. Spirit mediums provide a line of communication between people and spirits which facilitates this. The potentiality to placate spirits whose rights have been infringed gives people space to manoeuvre in terms of their own economic strategies. It is thus possible to envisage a situation in which ‘sacred’ nature is not untouchable; a situation in which religious ritual enables people to pursue economic ambitions that entail altering nature and enables them to offset resultant spiritual retribution. Like all of us, conservation biologists involved in the ‘sacred natural sites’ movement need to be wary of an idealised essentialist framing of Indigenous and other groups in the developing world that fails to account for the enormous pressure these groups are under as they seek to improve their economic position.

This kind of negotiation or ‘offsetting’ is also seen at a commercial level. There is, for instance, the case of Burmese timber merchants involved in logging in Siam in the late nineteenth century who built some of the well-known wooden Buddhist temples in northern Thailand in Lampang, Prae, Chiang Mai and elsewhere as a means of making merit to offset retribution by forest spirits (Zaw 2002). On the other hand, there appears to be an understanding that forest spirits are themselves able to adapt to environmental change. Turton (1978:124) shows how ‘non-specific forest spirits’ become specific when forest areas are cleared for houses or cultivation. They become tutelary spirits of the fields that occupy the space of the former forest. Also, people can deflect or resist retribution by spirits using spiritual means. Invulnerability tattoos can function in this way (Turton 1991) as can supernaturally empowered Buddhist amulets (Tambiah 1984).

Thai Buddhism, for its part, seems to have had an ambivalent attitude to forests. On the one hand, the forest monk movement (Tambiah 1984) valorises forests as providing an environment conducive to the practice of meditation. But on the other hand, in the 1970s many so-called ‘development monks’ encouraged forest clearance as part and parcel of the push to ‘civilise’ minority groups dwelling in upland forest areas and to combat communism (Darlington 1998). Kamala (1998:466–468) cites the case of a wandering monk who settled in an area near Nong Khai from 1858 to 1962, helping local villagers to overcome their fear of spirits and clear the forests for rice fields.

Conclusions: Conservation and materialism

Earlier, I referred to Christian missionising in Asia as targeting belief in the supernatural. There is a loose parallel, I suggest, between this missionising and the way nature conservationists and cultural heritage practitioners have gone to the region bearing the good word of the Western conservation ethic. Convinced of the universal goodness of our brand of conservation we easily find ourselves making assumptions about the meanings that nature and old things have for locals.

The most obvious assumption we make may be that the religious attention we see people devoting to their sacred groves or old temples equates with a desire on their part to conserve these things. What this misses or ignores is the interactional form of this attention which I would describe as an engagement between human and non-human actors. There is agency on both sides of such engagements. I have been concerned above with the spiritual force animating the kinds of non-human actors which come under the category ‘sacred natural sites’. But outside the realm of nature – in the case, for instance, of an old temple or stupa in Thailand – we find that people may conceive of the sacred integrity of a site as not dependent on maintaining the present physical state of the built structure. In the case of an old, dilapidated stupa, people are more likely to honour its miraculous force by completely encasing it in a completely new masonry shell covered with glittering new ‘bathroom’ tiles than they are by stabilising or restoring its existing fabric (Byrne 1995). In the case of a sacred grove, the spirit or deity embodying it may well be cadastral in nature (Mus 1975:11), meaning it is topographically anchored to (or embodied in) a particular site and will remain in situ following the clearance of the forest.

Western conservationists, though they may not themselves believe in the supernatural force of the old temple building or the sacred grove, nevertheless will often acknowledge local belief in this force and will try to make allowance for it in their management prescriptions. However, even where this is the case (and most often in places like Thailand allowance is not made) the conservationist’s focus still tends to be solidly on the tangible materiality of the building or grove. Despite the quite genuine respect that I believe members of the ‘sacred natural sites’ movement have for Indigenous religion, at the end of the day what they are primarily interested in is the ‘natural’ rather than the ‘sacred’. This, I believe, has far more to do with our own materialism than it does with the Indigenous valuation we think we are observing.

The fields of nature conservation and cultural heritage conservation can be seen as grounded in the particular kinds of materialism associated with modernity. We might note that the aspect of popular religion in Asia that I have been addressing – that to do with belief in the supernatural agency of non-human beings and objects – was known in early Western modern history as fetishism. Hal Foster (1993:255) observes that the Protestant Reformation embodied a denial:

… that any material object has a special capacity of spiritual mediation. Yet in this religious point is hidden an economic agenda: to denounce as primitive and infantile the refusal to assess value rationally, to trade objects in a system of equivalence, in short, to submit to capitalist exchange.

The ‘sacred natural sites’ movement, on the face of it, seems to reject the Reformation’s stand against the notion of divine immanence in nature, relics, and other holy objects and thus seems to contest the Reformation’s assertion that sacramental force is exclusive to God in heaven. But as Foster points out, the Reformation’s assertion that divine, miraculous force is absent from the earthly realm has an economic agenda – and here we have the linkage between Protestantism and capitalism that Weber famously (2002) theorised in the first decade of the twentieth century: that the value of things was determined by their exchange value. Extending on Marx’s analysis, Foster (1993:255) sees this move as one in which ‘commodity fetishism partly replaced religious fetishism, or at least compensated for its partial loss’. What I am leading to here is the proposition that ‘conservation’, as we know it, is an expression of modernity’s commodity fetishism. Heritage practitioners do not merely ignore or marginalise the supernatural in their conservation work on old temples, they substitute the fetishism of the supernatural for the fetishism of the commodity. The latter expresses itself in terms of the amassing of archaeological and art historical descriptive data on old places and the ‘banking’ of it in heritage inventories. On the nature conservation side of the table, commodity fetishism takes the form of the quantification of biodiversity.

Breaking down the culture-nature divide involves far more than some kind of integration of the fields of cultural and natural heritage conservation. It involves a critical deconstruction of our modern historical experience. In many ways it also entails a project of decolonisation. Noting that both the colonisation of nature and the West’s colonisation of the ‘outer’ world involved categorising non-humans and non-Europeans as radically Other (Plumwood 2002:53), what is called for in both cases is a decolonisation that entails surrendering notions of innate superiority, substituting democratic relations for hierarchical ones, and replacing instrumentalism with effective communication.


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1 The term ‘sacred natural sites’ appears to have been coined by participants in the IUCN’s Task Force on Cultural and Spiritual Values, established in the 1990s, and now known as the Cultural and Spiritual Values Specialist Group. See (Accessed: 06/2012).

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