Finding Green In God

More than 80% of the world’s people say they belong to a religious group. Now, a survey of religious affiliations in 125 nations with important biodiversity “hotspots” suggests that the faithful could become important partners in building support for conservation.

“Although some religious doctrines have been questioned over their exploitative approach to the living world, in general religions have historically promoted ethical and moral codes of conduct, including support for conservation,” Shonil Bhagwat of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and two co-authors write in Conservation Letters. Few studies, however, have systematically examined the links between religion, development and conservation.

To gauge the potential connections, the researchers looked at membership in 11 “mainstream” religions in 125 nations with biodiversity hotspots identified by the nonprofit Conservation International. The list included 95% of developing nations, which tend to have high poverty rates, but relatively low per-capita resource consumption, or “ecological footprints.”

Overall, they found that over 70% of the population in hotspot countries, or more than four billion people, follow organized religion. In nearly 60% of the nations, more than 90% of the population subscribed to mainstream faiths. By and large, populations living in relatively religious nations tended be poor and have ecological footprints of less than two hectares per person. “This means nearly half of the world’s population living in hotspot countries has an ecological footprint equivalent to 10% of the earth’s land surface,” the authors note.

The data suggest that hotspot nations are places “where the moral agendas of conservation and development coincide,” they write. And “although more research is needed to assess whether the religious ethic can be harnessed, the potential of employing religions as ‘joint venture partners’ in conservation and development programs appears to be substantial.” In particular, “faith groups with a ready built matrix of pro-conservation ethics might make valuable partners in effective conservation programs.”

In Indonesia, for instance, “Islamic principles of Hima (management zones established for sustainable natural resource use); Harim (inviolable sanctuaries used for protecting water resources); and Ihya Al-Mawat (practice of restoring neglected land) are commonly used in management.” And in places like Africa, traditional animast faiths often place great spiritual value on certain habitats or wildlife.

Over the long, they conclude, “religious conviction can provide a powerful motivation to act not only for individuals but for wider communities.” And “principles such as ‘sustainable use’ can seldom have the power that long established religious ethics such as stewardship or justice might have.” Although many conservation and development organizations “will choose to remain secular in their outlook so as to reach broad audiences,” the authors suggest that “partnerships with faith groups can go a long way towards meeting the goals of global biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation.” David Malakoff | March 11, 2011

Source: Bhagwat, S., Dudley, N., & Harrop, S. (2011). Religious following in Biodiversity Hotspots: challenges and opportunities for conservation and development. Conservation Letters DOI: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2011.00169.x

Image © Zenpix |