Basic concept


1. Background

The IUCN/WCPA Task Force on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas (CSVPA)[1] has shown keen interest and has done considerable work on sacred natural sites.

At present, a GEF project is being developed on "Conservation of Biodiversity Rich Sacred Natural Sites of Indigenous and Traditional Peoples" by IUCN and the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation (FRMT). Although global in scope, it focuses on Ecuador, Mexico and Peru in Latin America and on Guinea-Bissau and Kenya in Africa.

An idea came up to initiate within CSVPA a parallel and complementary action on sacred natural sites in developed countries. It followed an exchange of views[2] on the significance of these sites in the developed world, held in July 2003[3]. This action would not be limited to Europe, but would encompass developed countries in other parts of the world (such as Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the United States). In fact, developed countries that still maintain indigenous populations would be of particular interest, as they might provide a bridge between the two initiatives.

The concept was circulated among the members of the Task Force in early June 2004 and met with moderate interest. Allen D. Putney, Leader of CSVPA, asked Thymio Papayannis, member of CSVPA and director of Med-INA[4], to co-ordinate this action, and the current paper is a first step in this direction. The first draft of a concept note for the initiative was circulated in early September 2004. On the basis of comments received from Edmund G. Barrow, Josep María Mallarach, Gonzalo Oviedo, Gloria Pungetti, Allen D. Putney and Rob Wild, this concept note has been revised and a second draft prepared.

2. Name

For reasons of facility, and to avoid multi-letter acronyms, it is proposed that the action be named "Delos Initiative", from the Aegean Island, which during the Classical Greek period was an important spiritual centre focused on political co-operation.

3. General purpose and objectives

The purpose of this initiative would be to identify the pertinence and meaning of sacred natural sites found in the developed world, and to investigate whether and how spiritual values can contribute to the conservation and wise use of significant natural areas in this part of the world. The focus should be on sites with high biodiversity and preferably with a definite protection status.

  • More specifically, the objectives of the action are the following:

  • Understand the position of religions and spiritual traditions[5] existing in developed countries on nature and on the sanctity of natural sites.

  • Assess the pertinence and importance of sacred natural sites for contemporary people and attempt to estimate the significance of their spiritual values.

  • Study how these spiritual values can be maintained and enhanced and Investigate whether and how these values can contribute to the conservation of sites.

  • Attempt to resolve eventual conflicts between the spiritual character and uses of sacred sites and conservation and management requirements, establishing instead synergies, where possible.

4. Methodology

It is proposed that the Delos Initiative proceeds initially from the bottom-up, based on the analysis of specific sites. Thus the objectives outlined above would be first examined at the local level, debated among different teams, until conclusions can be reached, with results being extrapolated to a broader level. 

This approach would be complemented by a top-down approach, applying the basic metaphysical principles that most spiritual traditions share, such as the symbolic character of nature, the sacredness of (at least certain) natural theophanies, and, as a corollary, the awe and deep respect for the natural order, as a  terrestrial reflection of a celestial or divine order.


New Guidance for preparing the Delos Initiative case-studies download


5. Action plan

The work would proceed in a number of steps.

5.1 Establishment of a working group

Interested members from the CSVPA Task Force should indicate their willingness to participate actively in this venture. Already seven members have responded positively.

5.2 Selection of case studies

Participating members should select one or more sacred site(s) from a developed country, with which they are very familiar. The target would be to have from the beginning 6-10 such sites. These sites should be significant both from the spiritual and the natural (biodiversity) point of view.

A variety of sites should be aimed at; especially as to their spiritual significance (present or past). Thus it would be advantageous to include sites that have a strong contemporary religious / spiritual importance, as well as those that represent past beliefs and maintain only heritage values.

In Appendixes II and III four sites from Greece and three from Spain are proposed as an indication.

5.3 Preliminary actions 

After finalising the list of sites, each participant would be asked:

  • to establish contact with appropriate local stakeholders (religious groups, local authorities, etc.) and convince them to participate in the action;

  • to provide background information on these sites, on the basis of a uniform questionnaire.

5.4 Debate on key issues

A debate would then be organised among the participants on key questions related to the objectives listed in section 3 above (such as the meaning of sacred natural sites, the relationship between spiritual and natural values, their pertinence to people today, etc.).

Each issue will be presented with a short introduction, and will be discussed for a given period of time (2-3 weeks). The participants will be asked to relate their comments to the specific site for which they are responsible, after discussion with their local contacts, to analyse threats and challenges and to suggest concrete measures that could be implemented. At the end of each round, the conclusions will be edited and disseminated.

In parallel, there will be a systematic exchange of views with the executants of the GEF[6] project for indigenous and traditional peoples, so that the understanding of common issues can be enriched.


[1]   Formerly known as Task Force on the Non-Material Values of Protected Areas.

[2]   Between Thymio Papayannis and Allen D. Putney.

[4]   Mediterranean Institute for Nature and Anthropos at

[5]   This phrase has created a lively discussion among members. See the Delos Initiative document "Spirituality and religion: a debate", 25 October 2004.

[6]   Global Environment Facility.