My colleague, Sinu Pallaty of Kerala University, India and I both work in sacred forests, one in the sacred groves of the Western Ghats, India (PAS) and the other in the church forests of Ethiopia (ML). We have observed that partnership with diverse stakeholders, such as religious leaders, and that prioritization of a local community’s spiritual values, has led to more successful global conservation than more conventional top-down conservation in these regions. Some two billion people live with a religious ethic that respects sacred forests as an integral part of their lives. We believe that a serious effort to create metrics for the spiritual value of forests, in addition to the existing economic values of ecosystem services that western governments deploy, would enhance conservation success. Similar to giving carbon credits to forest tracts, could there be incentives offered for number of prayers or diversity of all of God’s creatures that are preserved in sacred forests? Just as the leadership of Bhutan developed a country-wide value based on gross happiness instead of gross domestic product, perhaps countries like India and Ethiopia deserve global recognition for their conservation efforts that are measured by spirituality. If this were to be calculated, countries like India with 1.2 billion people, would benefit enormously from the success of their conservation efforts; and perhaps western countries might learn new practices about additional values of natural areas. After all, if American churches were surrounded by forests instead of cement parking lots, then their biodiversity stewardship would be significantly enhanced. And maybe the integration of science and religion through the creation of metrics for valuing forests through spiritual means would ultimately lead not to just greater conservation success, but an overall enhancement of our perceived quality of life.
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