Progress and News


The Delos Initiative


Sacred natural sites in technologically developed countries


 Thymio Papayannis (*)  &   Josep M. Mallarach (**)


(*)  Mediterranean Institute for Nature and Anthropos

       23 Voucourestiou Street, 10671 Athens, Greece


(**) Fundación de Estudios Tradicionales

       Apt. 148  17800 Olot, Catalonia, Spain





The Delos Initiative is the only working group issued from the IUCN/WCPA Task Force on Cultural and Spiritual values of Protected Areas that is focusing on Sacred Natural Sites in technologically developed and transitional countries. After discussing some crucial considerations related to the context and background of the dominant western ideology  with respect to natural areas, this paper presents the purpose, objectives, methodology, action plan and current developments of the Delos Initiative, namely the establishment of the working group and  the site selection in three continents. Although pilot plans will be carried out in several countries during 2005, most actions are expected to be performed during the next years.




The designation, planning and management of current protected area systems in technologically developed and transitional countries is usually based on approaches that only take into consideration a certain number of the multiple dimensions that can link people and nature.  These technical scientific approaches do not give a balanced account to the full spectrum of values of protected areas: cultural values tend to be reduced to their material components, whereas spiritual values are usually ignored. Consequences of this loss are widespread and more significant that one tends to accept.


The International Symposium on Natural Sacred Sites-Cultural Diversity and Biological Diversity Conservation, held in Paris in 1998, and the 5th World Park Congress held in Durban, South Africa, in 2003, stressed the need to give full recognition to cultural and spiritual values in order to promote a truly integral policy of nature conservation, which can obtain a much broader social support. In addition, the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Immaterial Cultural Heritage, which endorsed Durban’s conclusions in 2003, was a significant step towards the international recognition of non-material values. As a result of the Durban Congress, the IUCN/WCPA Task Force on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas (CSVPA) was established. Since then it has done considerable work on sacred natural sites in several continents, mostly in developing countries of Central and South America and Asia.


The general attitude in technologically developed countries with respect to natural protected areas is determined by the prevalent positivistic and materialistic outlook of modern science, which has caused a weakening, or even a loss, of the spiritual dimension of nature, as well as other deeply rooted cultural connections related to the immaterial values of natural areas. The once pervasive concept of sacredness of nature has usually been reduced to certain exceptional locations, such as “natural sanctuaries” related to theophanic manifestations or to the Founders or main saints of world religions, if not completely eliminated, except in those countries where native people, having a primordial spiritual tradition, are still safeguarding this concept as a crucial component of their way of life.


Therefore, the adoption of a holistic approach of the protected areas and the non-material values they carry becomes a serious challenge. It has been acknowledged that taking into consideration vernacular knowledge, the connection to the land and deep rooted traditions, such as pilgrimages or celebrations developed in natural environments, would increase understanding and support of protected areas by local population. On the other hand, the qualitative values of nature, such as beauty, grandeur, loneliness, harmony and balance are of immediate and universal understanding, demanding recognition and protection. In short: a more receptive attitude towards spiritual and cultural values could help the inclusion of wide social feelings that had been marginalized by the materialistic scope, fostering a more balanced management approach of protected areas where these values are significant.


Since the context found in developed countries is quite differentiated than in the rest of the world, the idea came up to initiate within CSVPA a parallel and complementary action on sacred natural sites found in technologically developed countries. It followed an exchange of views on the significance of these sites in the developed world, held in July 2003. 


The concept was circulated among the members of the Task Force in early June 2004 and, at that time, Thymio Papayannis, member of CSVPA, became the co-ordinator of this action, later assisted by Josep M. Mallarach, also member of CSVPA, while the secretariat is ensured by social-anthropologist Irini Lyratzaki.


This is the first paper that has been prepared for public outreach purposes. The Initiative was named after the Aegean island of Delos, a biotope with considerable marine interest, which was considered sacred in classical times, dedicated to Apollo (the god of light) and the centre of a long lasting alliance.


General purpose and objectives


The purpose of the Delos Initiative is to identify the pertinence and meaning of sacred natural sites found in the technologically developed world, and to investigate whether and how spiritual values can contribute to the conservation and wise use of significant natural areas, as well as the maintenance of cultural heritage, in this part of the world. It will focus on sites of high natural heritage value with a definite protection status that are representative of world religions and spiritual traditions.


More specifically, the objectives of the Initiative are the following: 



  • Understand the position of the major religions and primal spiritual traditions in developed and

    transitional 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 be used as a tool for the conservation of sites.

  • Attempt to resolve eventual conflicts between the character of sacred sites and conservation

    and management requirements, establishing instead synergies, where possible.




The methodology of the Delos Initiative combines two complementary approaches: a bottom-up and a top-down. The bottom-up approach will be based on the analysis of specific sites, in order to:



- identify participants and sites in representative countries;

- examine the objectives at the local level;

- debate results of analysis with different stakeholders to reach common conclusions;

- generalise results and extrapolate them to a broader level. 


The top-down approach will apply the basic metaphysical principles that all spiritual and religious 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. So it will be possible to proceed to:



- identify underlying principles of different spiritual traditions;

- examine their pertinence and influence on different contexts;

- propose and validate relationships and analogies.



Action plan


The work of the Delos Initiative will proceed in a sequence of a number of steps.


a)     Establishment of a representative working group


At present there are 14 people involved, from eight countries in three continents:  E. Barrow, Kenya;  Boot, Australia; D. Byrne, Australia; E. Conner, Australia;  J. Falgarona,  Spain; J. García-Varela, Spain; L. Hamilton, USA; I. Lyratzaki, Greece; J.M. Mallarach, Spain; G. Oviedo, Switzerland; T. Papayannis, Greece; G. Pungetti, Italia;  A. Putney, USA and R. Wild, United Kingdom.


     b)     Selection of case studies in different world regions


Participating members have proposed, or will propose, one or more significant sacred site(s) selected from technologically developed or transitional countries, with which they are familiar. The target is to have a representative sample of sacred natural sites from all continents, including diversity of mainstream religions and primal traditions in countries with different social attitudes regarding nature and the sacred.


Sacred natural sites should be selected among those that have been established as natural protected areas. They should have a strong contemporary religious / spiritual importance, as well as those that represent past beliefs and maintain only heritage values, giving priority to sites where people are interested in an integrated approach to the spiritual and natural heritage. Their spiritual significance, present or past, is essential. Thus, it is intended to include sites that have a strong contemporary religious importance, as well as those that represent past beliefs and maintain only heritage values.


Therefore, the Delos Initiative will deal with five major types of sacred natural sites:


1)   Sacred natural sites related to ancient religions, such as the Gaelic, Egyptian or Greek, either historical or pre-historical, that may have, or have not, spiritual significance for contemporary people.

2)   Sacred natural sites related to contemporary world religions, which often have been considered sacred in past spiritual traditions, as well.

3)   Sacred natural sites of indigenous peoples living in developed or transitional countries.

4)   Sacred natural sites that are shared by different world religions and/or primal spiritual traditions.

5)   Cultural landscapes based on a number of related sacred natural sites or pilgrimage trails, belonging to any of the previously mentioned types, or combinations of.


Potential conflicts, on the other hand, are very diverse. They include public use and tourism with inappropriate attitudes towards sacredness, massive religious pilgrimages that may locally conflict with conservation of fragile habitats or species, traditional ecological knowledge that is not recognised, leading to the loss of cultural and natural values at landscape scale, and so on.



c)      Preliminary actions: pilot plans and presentations


After finalising the list of sites, each participant would be asked, first to establish contact with appropriate local stakeholders (religious groups, local authorities, etc.) and convince them to participate in the action; and next, to provide information on these sacred natural sites, on the basis of a uniform questionnaire.


The Delos Initiative has already been presented at some national and international conferences, such as the Congress of the Europarc Federation (the largest organization of for protected areas in Europe) in 2004 and the Congress Esparc 2005 in Spain.


d)     Debate on key issues


A debate will then be organised among the participants on key questions related to the objectives listed above. Each issue will be presented with a short introduction, and will be discussed for a given period of time. The participants will be asked to relate their comments to the specific site for which they are responsible, after discussion with their local contacts, as well as 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 other projects of the CSVPA that are concerned with indigenous and traditional peoples in developing countries, so that the understanding of common issues can be enriched.


The following steps will include the development and analysis of selected case studies, intranet debates, and finally a participatory workshop to elaborate the conclusions.  Conclusions of the Delos Initiative will include a diagnose, proposals to IUCN, WCPA, UNESCO, etc. and results dissemination through different channels: a book, web pages and, possibly a DVD. If the Initiative is sufficiently participative, the final publication would include guidelines on the management of sacred natural sites in technologically developed countries, illustrated by the case studies that have been analysed.


e)     Procedural aspects


Development of the Delos Initiative activity will be hosted at the following web site:, allowing the participation of other interested individuals. The first phase of the work can rely on auto-financing by the participants, including the co-ordination tasks, as the costs involved would be limited. Workshops, and further work could result in one or more projects with outside funding. The eventual edition and publication of a book would require raising the necessary funds.


Proposed sacred natural sites


So far there have been proposed the following sites, in three continents: 


- Patmos island, Aegean Sea, Greece, Natura 2000 site.

- Mt. Athos Peninsula, Greece, World Heritage Site and Natura 2000 site.

- Delphi  and Parnassos National Park, World Heritage Site, Greece.

- Meteora World Heritage Site, Greece.

- Montserrat Nature Park, Catalonia, Spain.

- Doñana National Park – El Rocío, Andalusia, Spain.

- Serra de Tramuntana Protected Area – Lluc, Balearic Islands, Spain.

- Covadonga - Picos de Europa National Park, Asturias, Spain.

- Holy Island of Arran, Scotland, United Kingdom.

- San Francisco Peaks, California, USA.

- Large cultural sacred coastal area, which includes Mumbulla National Park, New South Wales, Australia.


Additional sites are being evaluated in Italy, France, Canada and the Russian Federation. It is intended to include some sites from Asiatic countries such as Japan and China.



Appendix: Summary description and interest of some case studies



Mt. Athos, Greece

The ‘Holy Mountain’ is a peninsula of rich history, with a continuous living tradition of more than a millennium, with rich biodiversity and a unique landscape beauty. Although its access is limited (women are not allowed) the flow of visitors has become a menace and has necessitated the setting of quotas. Modern living requirements (especially transportation by automobiles) have resulted in the construction of a dense network of roads, with negative impacts on the landscapes.  The thriving communities of monks on Mt. Athos are now young, well-educated and coming from urban backgrounds Environmental problems, especially waste disposal, remain unsolved.



Patmos Island, Greece

Well-known as St. John’s island, where he wrote the Apocalypse, Patmos is located in the Aegean Sea, crowned by a famous monastery and has been considered sacred even to our days. Thus restrictive regulations have been legislated on both building and recreation activities. Tourist pressures, however, and the spreading secular character of modern Greece, have eroded the implementation of such regulations, with noisy bars operating close to the monastery and tourist facilities being constructed in the vicinity of particularly sacred places.


Doñana-El Rocío, Andalusia, Spain

The most important wetland of Spain, Doñana National Park is located at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River, Atlantic coast, in SW Andalusia.  

At the border of the marshland is located the shrine of the Virgin of El Rocío (the Dew), where the most important pilgrimage of Spain takes place every spring. Over one million pilgrims participate either by foot, by horse, or by wagon, walking through the dunes and marshlands, chanting and praying for several days, causing, some times, local conflicts with the protection of fragile flora communities.



Montserrat, Catalonia, Spain

With its thousands of stony pillars of outstanding beauty, Montserrat has been considered a sacred mountain since prehistoric times, becoming a Nature Park in 1994.  

It includes a medieval monastery dedicated to the Holy Virgin Mary, patroness of Catalonia, which was the main pilgrimage centre of the Aragon Crown from XIV-XVII. The Benedictine monastic community still has significant cultural and spiritual influence.

Montserrat is currently receiving about two million visitors per year, both tourists and pilgrims, causing stress to both the calm of monastic environment and to the natural integrity around it.



South Coast Sacred Cultural Landscape,

New South Wales, Australia

It includes an inter-connected and inter-related network of landscape features that form a large sacred cultural landscape. These mountains include Gulaga (Mount Dromedary) and Didthul/Balgan (Pigeon House Mountain) among others, and also other associated geographical features such as islands and coastal lakes. It contains the Mumbulla Mountain, a mountain sacred to the Yuin Aboriginal people. 

The Yuin led a campaign to stop logging at Mumbulla Mt. and this eventually led to the area being declared a National Park. Negotiations are taking place to return the park to Aboriginal ownership, after which time it would be jointly managed by the Yuin people and the NSW National Park and Wildlife Centre.