Ethical and practical support for biodiversity conservation may be found within the great religions such as Islam, or within the beliefs and traditional cultural practices of even the smallest community.
However, in order to measure and understand the potential impact of conservation ethics in religion and local culture, Stuart Harrop, Professor of Wildlife Management Law and Director of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) at the University of Kent, has embarked on several major projects in three of the world’s conservation ‘hotspots’.
The first of these projects, funded by the Darwin Initiative, examines the relationship between conservation and Islam in Sumatra while actively raising awareness of Islamic teachings about conservation; the second, funded by the Economic & Social Research Council / Natural Environment Research Council Interdisciplinary Studentship Scheme, examines the relationship between culture, sacred sites and bird migration in north and central Africa; and the third, financed by the Christensen Fund, examines the role of sacred forest sites in southwest Ethiopia in forestry conservation.
Across all three projects, Professor Harrop aims to show that natural resource conservation can benefit from the integration of key religious concepts and traditional conservation approaches into conventional management plans and conservation strategies, while local people can benefit from making conservation relevant to them.
He explained: ‘Innovative approaches to community-based conservation are urgently needed in places such as Indonesia and in particular Sumatra, which has some of the highest rates of tropical deforestation in Southeast Asia. Indonesia also has the world’s largest Muslim population, with religion having a strong influence on daily life.
‘Fortunately, within the Al-Qur’an there are several key principles – Tauhid, Khalifah, Mizan and Fitrah – that underpin nature conservation and outline the human role in conserving natural resources. Further, three interrelated land-use management systems in Sumatra apply Islamic principles within nature conservation. These are: Hima or management zones established for sustainable natural resource use; Harim or inviolable sanctuaries used for protecting water resources and their services; and, Ihya Al-Mawat, which encourages reviving neglected land to become productive. Our work there aims to implement a faith-based community outreach programme to strengthen and integrate these religious management systems into the legally recognised traditional, or nagari, system, which usually comprises several villages.’
While it remains too early to provide thorough evidence of the potential impact of belief systems on conservation in the three projects outlined above, Professor Harrop remains encouraged by the very positive local support of the project in Sumatra, ‘which suggests that the long-standing reverence for the environment within religion and culture is a very powerful force to turn the tide of biodiversity destruction.’