30
Nov

Reviving Culture and Ritual for Conservation of Land, Local Ecosystems, and Sacred Natural Sites

6th December 2021

By Rachael Sydney Knight

For fifteen years, I worked as a community land rights lawyer, supporting local communities and Indigenous Peoples to protect their communal lands against bad faith land grabs by national elites and international investors. 1 The communities I worked with were fighting against corporations and corrupt government officials intent on dispossessing them from their ancestral territories – extracting natural resources, polluting soils, contaminating waters, and destabilizing local culture along the way.

Sacred site at Yuba River, California; taken by author

Yet over the years, I began to notice a subtle erosion of the communities’ traditions, honouring relationships with their ancestral lands and local ecosystems. While most elders still saw land as infused with spiritual value – a nexus of connections to ancestors and spirits, requiring ritual “feeding” and care – I observed how other community members, indoctrinated into free market capitalism, had started to see land as a commodity that could be transacted; their vibrant local ecosystem as “resources” to be sold for a quick profit. A mountain, rather than a home to local deities, was increasingly viewed as a potential source of valuable minerals; a tree, rather than a sentient being supporting a web of ecological relationships, seen as timber. 

As a result, rural communities’ efforts to fight corrupt government officials and international investors from claiming their lands for mining, logging, and agribusiness ventures have sometimes been stymied by local people (both westernized elites and impoverished artisanal miners/loggers) who themselves have become increasingly eager to mine, log, lease or sell their own lands and resources for a quick profit. While external investment pressures remain strong, in some places local people are also extracting resources at an alarming rate or claiming common lands for their own private gain. Community members who seek to protect and preserve their local ecosystems often feel powerless against these individuals and groups, who tend to have significantly more power, wealth, and influence, or use violent means to achieve their ends. Often, such struggles divide communities and lead to conflict. 

I slowly came to realize that in such situations, having rights over one’s land is not enough – for true ecological flourishing and community thriving, the spiritual and emotional relationship between people and their lands must be strengthened. 

Distraught by my observations, I left my job and did a Master’s degree to investigate what had caused these changes and what could be done to restore communities’ more reverent relationships with their lands, waters, forests, mountains, and wildlife. My research confirmed my field-based observations: a range of internal and external forces are destabilizing communities’ relations with their lands and ecosystems to ill effect (and elders’ heartbreak), including:

Sacred site at Monserrat, Spain; taken by author

As a result of these trends, sacred natural sites are being transgressed and desecrated, fragile ecosystems are being degraded, waters are being polluted, GMO varieties are replacing carefully-bred ancestral seeds, locally-appropriate livelihoods are being displaced by agro-industrial farming, languages are being lost, and rites of passage and vibrant cultural traditions are falling out of practice. Such trends are leading to a dramatic, unprecedented breakdown in the transmission of indigenous culture – and the destruction of local ecosystems. 

My research indicated that, indeed: to conserve the biodiversity of local ecosystems and sacred natural sites, simply enshrining rights, enforcing boundaries, and mandating rules is not enough: it is also necessary to strengthen and revive the cosmologies and cultural practices that generate the respect for those sites and wider ecosystems. The many interviews I did with brave, visionary community leaders around the world working to revive their communities’ land-honouring practices led me to discern six practical strategies and three underlying “ways of being” that communities can follow to remember and strengthen the cosmologies, ceremonies and practices necessary to honour their sacred natural sites. These six strategies include:

  1. Courageous leadership and regular community meetings that build trust and solidarity and allow for authentic dialogue that helps to dismantle internalized oppression within the community; 
  2. Efforts to title or ring-fence a community’s territory to achieve tenure security and a degree of sovereignty – within which there is then greater freedom to govern according to indigenous and local cosmologies and traditional knowledge;
  3. The revival or strengthening of indigenous/local governance structures that govern in alignment with traditional beliefs, practices, protocols, and knowledge;
  4. The revival of core aspects of culture, including seeds, livelihoods, medicine, stories and music; 
  5. The remembrance and enactment of ceremonies and rituals that function to protect, care for, and “feed” sacred natural sites and the wider local ecosystem; and
  6. The creation of systems and programs that ensure intergenerational transfer of knowledge, beliefs, and worldviews. (It is particularly critical that cultural revival is done hand-in-hand with young people, and in a manner that they can integrate and adopt as ways of being, living, and making decisions about how to care for local lands and ecosystems – and each other.)

I found that such efforts are most successful when undertaken with three “ways of being,” including:

  1. Cultivating intellectual, emotional, and spiritual intimacy with the more-than-human-world;
  2. Actively collaborating with ancestors, spirits, deities and non-human forces; and 
  3. Adapting to the present moment, flexibly changing with the times to keep the culture current.
One example of such efforts has been the experiences of the Tharaka People of Kenya. At the start of their process of remembering, after decades of colonial interference the Tharaka had lost many of their rituals for honouring and caretaking their sacred natural sites. Elders with the tribe’s ancestral knowledge were passing away every month, taking their knowledge with them.

When Simon Mitambo, of the Society for Alternative Learning and Transformation (SALT), returned to his community wanting to convene groups of elders to revive the Tharaka People’s language, culture, and knowledge, the remaining elders wept. Meeting first in small and then larger and larger groups, over the course of seven years they slowly recovered their ancestral seed varieties and traditional foods; re-learned how to make their traditional clothing; revived aspects of their traditional medicine and healing modalities, and mapped and demarcated their sacred sites. Then, stronger in their identity and living out their customs more fully, community members began to have dreams in which their ancestors visited them and told them how to properly honour and tend to their sacred sites. With the dream guidance from their ancestors, they were able to hold land-honouring rituals that had not been practiced in generations. The result has been increased community conservation of those areas, and an incredible flourishing of biodiversity. Today, their children are learning Tharaka beading, songs, dances, stories, and indigenous knowledge and skills.  

Describing this process, Mitambo frames the impacts of his community’s efforts as the fulfilment of living peoples’ responsibility not only to their ancestors and future generations, but to the land itself:

“Those who came to the land before us, who are now the ancestors, are now also part of that land, and those that are living now are responsible to take care of the land. We have a responsibility to ensure that the future generations get the same; it is not about trying to extract from the land so that those who come later don’t even find anything; it’s not about making money now by mining or cutting trees – its more about having a responsibility and being accountable to the past and the future, to the ancestors and to those who are coming. …The elders in the community are very eco-literate. They read nature and it communicates with them. And so, by understanding the cycles of nature, the farmers were able to organize their farms and the pastoralists were able to organize how to graze by understanding the seasons…And they survived better than we are today, because people are now planting at any time. [Re-learning this] is not only changing people, it is also changing the land.”

Stories like this one are possible for people all around the world – and not only possible, but urgently necessary. To promote ecological and community resilience and tend carefully to the lands we steward, we must all find ways to both:

  1. Deepen our relationships with the lands we live on, as well as local waters, mountains, plants and animals; and
  2. Revive and strengthen our ancestor’s cosmologies, ecological knowledge, practices, and land-honouring rituals. 

This work is personal. I’ve spent years sitting in ceremony with a group of women from my own cultural background: over more than a decade, we have been collectively remembering and innovating an ancestral ceremonial container for young women’s rites of passage initiations. Meanwhile, my work as a land rights lawyer and my orientation as an animist have helped me open myself to listening to the land and the myriad voices of the land. In listening, I have been shown, again and again, that the land itself very much wants to be honoured and tended; that all land is sacred; and that the relative “sacredness” of a place or ecosystem is directly related to how beautifully it is loved, “fed,” and cared for. People’s attention and care make land sacred: the relating between land and people co-creates sacredness over time. 

Sacred site at Castle Rock, New Zealand; taken by author

Such land-honoring is for everyone. From my years working intimately with local and indigenous communities, I am acutely aware of the pain and grief that cultural appropriation causes, and the subtle violence of “new age” movements that thoughtlessly borrow (or steal) from traditions that were ruthlessly persecuted by some of those new age individuals’ own ancestors. However, if we hold that land-honouring ritual and ceremony are only the domain of Indigenous Peoples, on the grounds that we are “settlers” or “foreigners” or “colonialists,” then we do both the lands we live on and ourselves a huge disservice. If only Indigenous Peoples practice land-honouring rituals, then we are in deep trouble. All land wants to be honored, and all people have a land-honoring duty and joyous obligation. The challenge, then, is for all people to find their way “home” to their own culture’s land-feeding rituals, and practice those on the lands they have the privilege of living upon, while carefully listening to the lands’ expressed preferences for how it wants to be cared for and related to. 

But how can we practice land-honouring ritual and ceremony respectfully, without appropriating other cultures’ practices, and without overlooking the historical legacy of colonialism? I believe that land-honoring is possible without the violence of cultural appropriation: this project is an attempt to learn from communities who have lost many – or all – of their land-honouring practices and are working to remember them. By learning from their remembering processes, other groups can follow similar paths to remember and rediscover their own ancestral rituals. 

In conclusion, it bears noting that cultures, cosmologies and peoples can never actually be lost. They live on in our bones and blood, in our dreams and intuitions. As beautifully said by a friend of mine who is a Khoekhoe lawyer in South Africa:

“I don’t think anymore that the sacred can be lost, because the ancestral spirit continues in all of us. What gets lost are the containers. Whatever that medicine is, it is always alive, we just forget how to be in ceremony. So because we lose the form, we think we have lost the content – but we have not. We just need to remember how to contain it. Our ancestors knew how to contain it…It cannot die, it is bigger than us. We have just forgotten the format of how to honour it. But it is always there, and not even capitalism and globalization can kill it.”

I’m Seeking Stories ~ Please Get in Touch  
I have been granted a fellowship to expand my research into a book, and I am now seeking stories of communities who are engaged in the process of strengthening – or remembering and reviving – land-honouring ceremonies, rituals and indigenous wisdom concerning spiritual stewardship of the natural world, as a key component of efforts to: conserve local biodiversity, heal degraded ecosystems, dismantle the enduring impacts of colonization, and strengthen community dignity, resilience, and cultural flourishing.

I will compile these stories into a book showcasing effective strategies for remembering land-honouring rituals and traditions (to avoid appropriation, I will not describe the actual rituals, only the process of reviving them). Humans have largely forgotten how to be in reciprocal relationship with the land: how to listen to the land, and how to serve or “feed” the land (rather than simply take). My aim in writing this book is to detail a wide variety of ways to remember how to serve and honour the more-than-human world, such that readers may be inspired to revive their own culture’s land-honouring practices and rituals (even if the rituals and relationships were lost generations ago).     

The book’s intended audience would be not only Indigenous Peoples interested in reviving their more-recently-eroded ancestral relationships to land, but anyone who wants to remember how to more deeply relate to the land they live and work upon. My aim is for this book to serve as a kind of “how to” guide that people from all countries and contexts can look to for inspiration, adapting their “remembering processes” according to their  own cultural heritage, deep listening to the land, and intuitive knowing.

It is my hope that this book will be a collaborative process of co-creation, with me acting mostly as a curator to bring together and connect others’ wisdom and knowledge. To this end, all those whose stories are part of the final published book will be considered to be co-authors and will receive an equal portion of all profits derived from the book’s publication. If you have a story to share, please contact me at rachaelknightconsulting@gmail.com 

1 You can read a summary of my work at: https://namati.org/resources/how-to-protect-community-lands-online-resource-guide/ 

2 Rutte, 2011; Bhagwat and Rutte, 2006; Chandrakanth et al., 2004; Pretty et.al, 2009; Agrawal and Gibson, 1999; Simpson, 2004; Sarma and Barpujari, 2011; Amster, 2008; Rily, 2010; Yuan et al., 2014; Adom, 2018; Olanya, 2013; Chandrakanth et al., 2004; Baggethun and Reyes-García, 2013; Knight et al., 2012; Ohmagari and Berkes, 1997; Cristancho and Vining, 2009; Pearce et al., 2011; Baggethun and Reyes-García, 2013; Bruyere et al., 2016; Vipat and Bharucha, 2014.

All photos are taken by the author & are images of sacred places she loves.


Rachael Knight is an attorney with expertise in community land protection, land tenure security, access to justice, and legal empowerment. She is currently a Senior Associate on the Legal Tools for Citizen Empowerment team at the International Institute for the Environment and Development (IIED). She helped to found Namati, and created Namati’s Community Land Protection Program, then served as its Director from 2012-17 and as its Senior Advisor from 2018-2019. In this capacity, together with land rights advocates throughout Africa, she co-created an integrated model of community land protection that is now practiced around the world. Previously, she was Director of the International Development Law Organization’s Community Land Titling Initiative, and has worked as a consultant for FAO since 2004. She supports governments to draft land laws that formalize customary land rights and protect community lands, and has written various books and guides for community land protection advocates and activists, available at: https://namati.org/ourwork/communityland/community-land-protection-publications

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