Natural and cultural heritage in forests

Forests are repositories of both natural and cultural heritage, as demonstrated by several sites throughout the Mediterranean.

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Forest and castle in Sintra
Palácio Nacional da Pena, Sintra, Portugal. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Forests are one of the most important examples of natural heritage in the Mediterranean and the rest of the world, due to their exceptional value in terms of science, conservation, and natural beauty.

However, forests also have a cultural value that is often underestimated. Among the many ecosystem services that forests provide there are many cultural ones related to tourism, sport, wellbeing, spirituality, and more.

Furthermore, human traditions have developed in forests, and these cultural practices shaped forests themselves. These natural ecosystems host tangible and intangible manifestations of cultures that take on value as the heritage of humanity. Therefore, forests are important repositories of humanity’s cultural heritage.

Forests and the UNESCO Heritage Lists

This strong connection between forests and cultural heritage is reflected in the UNESCO World Heritage List, the best-known collection of cultural and natural assets of universal value. This list includes several Mediterranean forests as sites that have not only an outstanding natural value but also a cultural one. However, this does not simply mean that in these sites with extraordinary ecosystems people also happen to practice relevant cultural traditions. On the contrary, there is a strong linkage between customs and the environment where they take place.

In many instances, cultural practices have contributed to the preservation of the surrounding forests and ecosystems. This is the case of Mount Athos in Greece. There, the thousand-year-old monastic tradition preserved in the spiritual centre has led to the conservation of the Mediterranean forest and the biodiversity of the area.

Moreover, in Portugal, European romantic architecture and the surrounding forest are the two main interconnected heritages of the Sintra Cultural Landscape. In this case, human intervention modified the forests in the area but also insured their preservation.

The UNESCO list also includes the site of the Pyrenean mountains – Mont Perdu between France and Spain. Its extraordinary landscape of forests and meadows allowed the preservation of the cultural tradition of transhumance. At the same time, these human activities developed in the Middle Ages have shaped the landscape as it appears today. Transhumance, the seasonal rearing of livestock along the migratory routes of the Mediterranean and the Alps, has also been inscribed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The close link between this practice and forests is also at the core of this example of intangible heritage.

Transhumance in an Italian forest. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Truffle hunting and extraction in Italy is also part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage list, demonstrating the deep connection between forest products and cultural traditions. Here, practitioners hold traditional knowledge on how to extract truffles while protecting biodiversity and ensuring their seasonal regeneration.

The double link between forests and cultural heritage

These examples demonstrate the deep interconnection between forests and cultural heritage in the Mediterranean and beyond. On the one hand, human activities and forest use have shaped these ecosystems throughout history. On the other, even today forests are places where artistic heritage is preserved and cultural traditions are practised.

Consult the UNESCO World Heritage List and the Intangible Cultural Heritage List to discover more connections between forests and cultural heritage.

Sources and additional information