From religion to conservation: Greek community guards sacred forest for over 300 years

This new paper explores how a Greek local community successfully guarded its sacred forest over more than 300 years of tumultuous socio-economic changes, and reflect on the conservation and management implications this holds for spiritual landscapes.

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Sacred forest in Greece
Photo: Kalliopi Stara.

Sacred forests are wooded areas with spiritual significance for people and rural communities. They represent places of worship and commemorations, where natural elements are intertwined with people’s memories and local beliefs. Sacred forests exist in numerous world religions and cultures, and can be found nearby churches, shrines, temples, or mosques. In many cases sacred forests are inhered and preserved by subsequent civilizations.

In Greece a network of sacred forests has been recently unveiled in the northern region of Epirus. These sacred groves have existed in the area since the Ottoman period (1479–1913) and take the form of small forest patches embedded in former active agricultural landscapes. In the northern part of the region, almost every village has a sacred forest nearby where Orthodox religious norms for hundreds of years preserved areas of forest through the times when forests were scarce in the area. An international and multidisciplinary team led by the Ecology Lab at the University of Ioannina has studied such sites for more than two decades to reveal their history and vegetation patterns, guiding practitioners and local communities on how to preserve this important local intangible heritage.

In this recently published study, the researchers performed a detailed temporal assessment of one sacred forest, to study how the relationships across actors, local customs, formal regulations, and the natural environment have evolved since the establishment of the settlement (17th century) till today. This socio-ecological reconstruction aimed at identifying the main factors contributing to the successful conservation of the forest. The site chosen for this research is the forest of Greveniti, located in the Zagori municipality. Greveniti is a settlement whose inhabitants are mainly woodcutters and small farmers. The village is encircled by a stunning sacred forest of beach trees, which was protected through religious practices (aphorism/excommunication) across centuries for water supply control and erosion purposes. To reconstruct the village socio-ecological history, the authors used a widely known framework for assessing natural resource management issues: the Ostrom framework. This framework has been theorized by Elinor Ostrom, first woman to win the Nobel prize in Economics in 2009. Since then, it has been used to study how communities manage their common natural resources, as fisheries, forests, and local ecosystems. The novel application of the Ostrom framework to sacred natural sites management is one of the main contributions of this research.

The multidisciplinary approach combined ethnographic observations, archival data, interviews with local informants and ecological data collected in the field. This as to identify whether the way the forest was traditionally maintained and conserved has changed through time. By studying the history of the site, the authors hoped to find elements which can help scientists and practitioners to successfully manage sacred sites in modern times.

The results of the research shown that tumultuous socio-economic, political, and governance changes have occurred in the village over the last 300 years. The population of the settlement has drastically reduced due to wars and subsequent outmigration, passing from approximately 1,400 inhabitants in mid-19th century to less than 100 permanent residents. The local governance system was also altered, due to mandatory municipality mergers since 1999. Surprisingly, these drastic changes have not impacted the collective conservation of the local sacred forest. Outnumbered and elderly, local inhabitants are still aware of the sacred forest’s existence and of its protective role, despite the experienced turmoil. This is an outstanding finding, which contrasts existing literature on Sacred Natural Sites social and political changes are often considered the main factors for the degradation of sacred forests.

For 200 years (18th and 19th centuries) the basic collective rule for the management of Greveniti sacred forest was the fear of being cursed by the excommunication regime in place in the forest. Since the beginning of the 20th century, this supernatural fear has been gradually supplanted by the recognition of the ecosystem service role of the forest in replenishing the village’s aquifers and mitigating flood risks. This shows how the villagers have adopted an alternative vision for the conservation of the forest’s future; adapting and rationalizing the traditional governance system to modern governance tools. No matter the method in use, the central role of the sacred-protective forest in community’s life remains active.

The authors link this finding to a series of factors and, primarily, the active role of the local community. Although its socio-economic attributes have radically changed compared to previous centuries, the community council maintains the leadership role for forest preservation. Results show that a simple rule enforced by a cohesive community can withstand more than 300 years of socio-economic and ecological changes and preserve important natural and cultural heritage systems. This has important management implications for the conservation and management of spiritual landscapes in changing mountainous communities, and is even more relevant as today sacred forests in Greece have been included in the UNESCO National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Reference

Marini Govigli, V., Efthymiou, A., & Stara, K. (2021). From religion to conservation: unfolding 300 years of collective action in a Greek sacred forest. Forest Policy and Economics, 131, 102575. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.forpol.2021.102575