Sacred Lands and Waters

Protecting sacred natural sites and territories, and the rights of traditional custodians, through legislation, policy, inter-generational learning, wilderness experience and habitat restoration.

We recognise that sacred lands and waters are critical for maintaining the health of the Earth, upon which the health of all communities depend.

The whole Earth is sacred. Within the body of our Earth there are places which are especially sensitive, because of the special role they play in ecosystems. We call these places sacred natural sites. Each sacred natural site plays a different but important role, like the organs in our body. All of life is infused with spirit. (African Community Custodians Statement, 2012)

From mountains to rivers, forest groves to coral reefs, springs to wetlands, sacred natural sites are places of special cultural, ecological and spiritual significance, embedded in the territories of indigenous communities. The traditional custodians of these sites – select elders within the community or clan – are central to their protection and responsible for ceremonies to maintain the health of the ecosystem and the community. However, the impact of colonisation, missionaries and globalisation has severely fractured the networks of sacred sites and the traditional practices for safeguarding them.

Gaia has been working with partners and sacred site custodians across the Amazon and Africa to protect these sites and ancestral lands, and to revive the rituals and customary laws and governance systems, restoring confidence in that which has traditionally woven the community and ecosystem together.  Through community dialogues, eco-cultural mapping, knowledge exchange and coalition building, we work together to assert their right to observe their ancestral responsibilities – which have conserved their territories for millennia – and to enhance their long-term resilience, rooted in their identity. These customary governance systems are derived from the laws of the Earth, which is what has enabled indigenous communities to live in harmony with Nature for millennia.

Sacred Natural Sites and community governing systems bring to the fore the true meaning of a sustainable relationship with Earth. Wisdom shows that the impacts of an immoral behaviour with Earth does not spare communities and their cultures. (Nnimmo Bassey, Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation).

Right now, many of those with whom we work are on the frontline of landgrabbing for mining, industrial agriculture, tourism or so-called ‘development’ projects. As they stand up to defend their sacred lands, we provide strategic and international solidarity through media, small grants, advocacy and movement building, particularly through the Yes to Life No to Mining movement. At policy level, we have a special focus on establishing sacred lands, wilderness areas, world heritage sites, community conserved and all forms of protected areas, as off-limits for extractive and other destructive industries as a minimum standard. Over the last decade we have gained recognition at regional and international levels of the importance of indigenous sacred natural sites and territories as no-go areas, and the rights of custodian communities.

You can find out more about the practical ways in which we work with indigenous communities and policy makers, to safeguard sacred natural sites and territories, by exploring the links, materials and films below.

Related news

2nd September 2021

Defending Sacred Lands alongside their Custodians – Gaia at IUCN

Indigenous custodians of Sacred Natural Sites and Territories are our best guides for protecting natural and cultural land and seascapes, nurturing biodiversity, and reconnecting to the spiritual dimensions of Nature…. Read More

21st June 2021

Stories for the Solstice

Gaia’s Director, Liz Hosken, shares a message on the Solstice, featuring stories from across our global network and updates from all of Gaia’s programme areas. Today we welcome the longest… Read More

Useful reports & publications

18th November 2015

Recognising Sacred Natural Sites and Territories in Kenya

Our 2012 report, produced with the African Biodiversity Network and the Institute for Culture & Ecology, provides analysis of Kenya’s legal and policy framework, and recommendations for securing greater recognition of the country’s sacred… Read More

28th September 2015

Mining & Its Impacts on Water, Food Sovereignty & Sacred Natural Sites and Territories

This Report exposes the existing and likely impacts of mining and extractive activities, with a focus on the districts of Hoima and Buliisa in Bunyoro, Uganda. Building on the earlier… Read More

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