“Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.”
Article 25 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
Philanthropy has a long history of making grants to advance outcomes in lands and waters that are currently or have historically been occupied by indigenous peoples. Indigenous communities often have strong, unique connections to their lands—these lands are inextricable from their identity. Spirituality, culture, language, and social identity of Indigenous communities are all linked to their lands and waters. Embedded within in these Indigenous territories are Sacred Natural Sites (SNS) which possess special cultural and spiritual significance for indigenous communities. The traditional custodians of these sites have cared for and maintained these areas, in many cases, for millennia; and it is this care and protection that has provided for the “oldest forms of culture-based conservation” fostering rich biodiversity and thriving landscapes and ecosystems. In addition to their contributions to biodiversity conservation, SNS are also integral to the preservation of Indigenous cultural practices and traditional knowledge. Indigenous people have argued that the “cultural and physical survival of indigenous peoples, and therefore the realisation of their rights under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is contingent on the continued existence and health of sacred natural sites.”
The Indigenous role to conservation, including the intrinsic value of SNS, has been largely undervalued and historically overlooked by governments and conservation organizations. As a result, few policies or laws exist to protect indigenous territories or SNS. With a lack of protection, sacred sites all over the world are under pressure from development, improper management or exploitation threatening not only these sites but the human rights of the Indigenous communities connected to these places.
Sacred Land Film Project map of identified Sacred Sites with the level threat the site currently faces. https://sacredland.org/map/
How can funders support Indigenous communities and their custodians? Specifically, how do funders help strengthen indigenous traditions, protect against threats, and work to generate legal and policy recognition to preserve Indigenous cultural sites and practices? To help answer some of these questions, IFIP is investigating the practicality of developing a Sacred Natural Sites Guidelines for Funders, similar to the Sacred Natural Sites: Guidelines for Protected Area Managers created by International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The intent of the proposed guide would be to provide funders with an understanding of the importance of SNS in relation to biodiversity, climate resilience, protected areas, human rights, and cultural durability. It would outline how philanthropic support can: 1) meet multiple outcomes through recognition and protection of these sacred places and 2) ensure access and oversight by the traditional custodians into the future. Since many environmental/conservation funders work within protected areas, the guide could be of interest considering many SNS are located within current protected areas, often without consultation of Indigenous custodians. It is anticipated that the guidelines would promote respectful cooperation over SNS recognition and management, furthering our efforts to support and advance Indigenous Peoples stewardship and rights over their territories.
The development of this guide is purely exploratory at the moment, but we welcome input from funders so we may gauge interest and prospective content. Please reach out and let us know if you feel this type of resource would be helpful in informing your work. Are there experiences that you have had as a funder that you feel may be relevant to this topic? Do you feel SNS protection could be a theme that could leverage opportunities for cross-sector collaboration? We’d value hearing your input and experiences on this topic.
To provide information on this topic, ask questions, or voice concerns, please contact Rachel Smith, IFIP Program Coordinator for the Indigenous Territory Working Group (firstname.lastname@example.org).