Resilience meets reverence: temporal and spatial responses of sacred forests to external changes

Sacred forests, often undervalued in the European landscape, hold a vital living heritage of immense cultural importance. A recent paper sheds light on their significance.

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Photo: K. Stara

Sacred Natural Sites (SNS) and sacred forests are places with spiritual significance for communities, where natural and human elements are intertwined. They are found globally across different cultures and environments. Newly published research has shown that the special status of these forests also gives them important ecological characteristics, in particular a high resilience that enables them to recover after periods when they were damaged and degraded.

Photo: K. Stara

The sacred status of these forests in Epirus, northwestern Greece, is conferred due to their association with the Greek Orthodox Church. Many of the forests have a church building or other religious feature at their cultural core and have been protected from exploitation down the generations by strict prohibitions enforced through the spiritual beliefs of local people and the continuation of sacred rituals.

The history of Epirus over the past 400 years has been marked by huge societal changes during the era of the Ottoman Empire, Greek independence and then the impact of two world wars. Human populations in this rural area have gone through large fluctuations from periods of intensive land use and pressure on forest resources, to depopulation that allowed recovery of forests by natural regeneration.  The research by the University of Ioannina, University of Bologna, Bangor University and the Forestry Service of Ioannina, published in People and Nature, has shown that throughout this history the sacred forests have remained a constant natural feature in the landscape.

Photo: K. Stara

Taking wood cores from the trees in five of these forests and measuring their growth rings has shown big fluctuations in the rate at which new trees have established since the oldest measured tree, which was dated to 1621.  A peak in the emergence of new trees was found during periods when human populations were low. There was also good evidence to show that the mature trees of the sacred forests acted as a nucleus from which seeds dispersed enabling new trees to establish and expand the forest cover out into the landscape.

Lead researcher Dr Valentino Marini Govigli of the University of Bologna commented: “These results have important implications for such sacred natural sites, which can be considered as ‘socio-ecological systems’, with their natural and human elements intertwined. Their strong cultural status has been vital for their survival during periods of huge turmoil, and their capacity to reseed forest recovery across the landscape when reduction in human pressures has allowed, which has been crucial for their resilience.”

Photo: K. Stara

Since 2015, the sacred forests in the region’s villages have been recognized as part of Greece’s Intangible Cultural Heritage index. They are also integral to the Zagori Cultural Landscape, which was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2023. To ensure their preservation, the research team suggests that it is crucial to focus on the social aspect of this long-term socio-ecological system (e.g., traditional management practices, preservation of local knowledge), given its role in preserving a nucleus of established forest habitat through time and space necessary for forest recovery and restoration. The findings from this study offer significant insights for forest managers, providing guidance on forest management strategies that can be adopted to safeguard these precious forests.

Full reference

Marini Govigli, V., Healey, J.R., Wong, J.L.G., Stara, K., Tsiakiris, R., Halley, J.M. (2024) Exploring spatial and temporal resilience in socio-ecological systems: evidence from sacred forests in Epirus, Greece. People and Nature, 00, 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10624

SOURCEValentino Marini Govigli
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Valentino Marini Govigli
Valentino Marini Govigli is Junior assistant professor (fixed term) at the Department of Agri-Food Sciences and Technologies, University of Bologna (Italy). He holds a PhD in Forest and Cultural ecology, a MRes in Ecology and Environmental Management, and a BAE in Economics. His fields of expertise are socioeconomics of agro-forest goods and services, consumer behaviour and stakeholder preferences, intangible ecosystem services assessment, social innovation brokerage and multi-actor engagement.