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Conservation and Society
An interdisciplinary journal exploring linkages between society, environment and development
Conservation and Society
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Year : 2019  |  Volume : 17  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 218-219

Indigenous Sacred Natural Sites and Spiritual Governance: the legal case for Juristic Personhood

Lecturer and Researcher: Forest and Nature Conservation Policy Group, Wageningen University, Netherlands; Co-Chair: IUCN-WCPA Specialist Group: Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas, Netherlands

Correspondence Address:
Bas Verschuuren
Lecturer and Researcher: Forest and Nature Conservation Policy Group, Wageningen University; Co-Chair: IUCN-WCPA Specialist Group: Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/cs.cs_19_28

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Date of Web Publication2-Apr-2019

How to cite this article:
Verschuuren B. Indigenous Sacred Natural Sites and Spiritual Governance: the legal case for Juristic Personhood. Conservat Soc 2019;17:218-9

How to cite this URL:
Verschuuren B. Indigenous Sacred Natural Sites and Spiritual Governance: the legal case for Juristic Personhood. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2019 [cited 2020 Aug 11];17:218-9. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2019/17/2/218/254798

In this intriguing book, John Studley expands on the literature that questions how Indigenous peoples have governed and protected their sacred sites for countless generations (Carmichael et al. 1994; Liljeblad and Verschuuren 2019). His focus is on sacred natural sites, such as mountains, rivers, trees or water bodies known by indigenous people to be inhabited by a deity or numina, more commonly known as nature spirits. Spirits play an important role in everyday life of Indigenous peoples who maintain intricate relationships with nature spirits through ritual, ceremony, offerings, prayer and meditation. These practices are mostly aimed at consulting or appeasing the spirits who may also punish people for disobedience or harmful behaviour. This way, spirits possess agency and hold power over indigenous peoples and the ways in which they manage and govern their territories, a phenomenon which Studley describes as spiritual governance.

Spiritual governance is seldomly considered in nature conservation and development activities but it is nonetheless relevant to millions of indigenous people and a multitude of landscapes. In the Himalayas for example, Studley estimates that Tibetan Indigenous sacred natural sites controlled through spiritual governance make up 25% of the territories populated by Indigenous Tibetans (Studley and Bleisch 2018). This constitutes a significant contribution to the conservation of biodiversity, especially when considering that worldwide, Indigenous lands harbour up to 80% of the earth's biodiversity. By showing how the worldviews of indigenous peoples can - and have been - integrated in modern law Studley makes a compelling case for taking spiritual governance seriously. In so doing, Studley elucidates an important rights-based trajectory which he expects, will increasingly shape the future of conservation, protected areas and environmental governance.

Where earlier debates focussed on how the law would leave sacred sites vulnerable to encroachment by neoliberal development, this book provides an introduction to the growing legal basis for spiritual governance in relation to the protection of indigenous sacred sites. The introduction is complemented by an expanded chronology of various court cases taken from an earlier study by Studley and Bleisch (2018). Studley offers an analysis of the jurisprudence involving a variety of indigenous cultures and a diversity of countries on several continents, including; Ecuador, New Zealand, Colombia, Canada, India, and the USA. This detailed analysis explores the recognition of legal personhood granted to rivers, mountains and forests while differentiating from what we know as wild law (Berry 2011) or the rights of mother nature (Humphreys 2017). It is unique to the literature because it focusses on the legal dimensions of spiritual governance of sacred natural sites and by extension those of nature itself. Drawing on this collective body of jurisprudence the book forms an important contribution to reframing law in general, and particularly contemporary international indigenous law. It demonstrates how ancient and continuous traditions of customary law related to indigenous sacred natural sites, can develop into positive law adopted and enacted by the proper authority for the government.

As animistic beliefs increasingly affect the governance and law of nature and natural resources, they are increasingly taken seriously in nature conservation. The diversity of ontologies and worldviews in animistic cultures is not only part of the 'animistic turn' in post-modern science (Haber 2009), it also results in the recognition of the plurality of legal systems. Studley explores the conceptual basis and theoretical debates surrounding legally and culturally pluralistic approaches for recognising the role of spiritual governance and legal personhood of sacred natural sites. In so doing, Studley draws heavily on his longitudinal ethnographic work with the Tibetan and Qiangic people of Kham and southwest China.

Studley's prolific scholarly inquiries provide deep and detailed understanding of the legal interpretation of the role of non-humans and nature spirits. These are, he concludes, occasionally recognised as perpetual minors by courts. As such, nature spirits require to be represented by a guardian, a status based on the premise that they should be capable of holding rights and responsibilities in environmental governance. This does however leave unanswered the question—why other non-human entities such as corporations can be fully recognised as legal entities while local spirits and deities cannot?! Perhaps that finding the answer to this question will contribute to creating legal solutions for the protection of culturally and religiously significant natural features and ecosystems such as for example the sacred river Ganges.

When following Studley's exposé, one increasingly wonders how these spiritual governance systems that are so critically important to the well-being of millions of people and landscapes, seem to have been largely overlooked or ignored by conservationists. Moreover, the book challenges those involved with the governance and management of protected and conserved areas to see spirits and their believers as genuine governance actors. While some argue that contemporary protected areas along with bold global conservation targets to set aside half the earth for conservation are concepts that have limited value in the future of conservation (Buscher et al. 2016), Studley alternatively argues that ancient spiritual governance systems can make a critical contribution to conservation and protected areas in this modern day and age. Despite the changing roles of protected and conserved areas in the Anthropocene, we are left wondering if these spiritual governance systems will be able to continue functioning under the foreboding changes that come with the pressures of development and climate change.

All in all, Studley has created a bench-mark publication on spiritual governance underpinning its potential for transforming modern law and conservation, not only in relation to Indigenous and Community Conservation Areas, but in a wide range of protected areas across the world. The book forms an innovative yet specialised reference for conservationists and protected areas professionals, scholars and students of environmental law and governance as well as activists, administrators, legislators, and policy-makers interested in the application of Indigenous spiritual traditions in a modern era.


I have followed the development John Studley's work on spiritual governance of sacred natural sites over the past decade. He has previously published in books and peer reviewed journal articles in which I had an editorial role. This book is the culmination of his research on this topic and I recommended him to publish it based on its originality.

   References Top

Thomas, B. 2011. Rights of the earth: we need a new legal framework which recognises the rights of all living beings. In: Exploring wild law: the philosophy of earth jurisprudence. Pp. 227–229. Kent Town, SA, Australia: Wakefield Press.  Back to cited text no. 1
Buscher, B., R. Fletcher, D. Brockington, C. Sandbrook, W.M. Adams, L. Campbell, C. Corson, et al. 2016. Half-earth or whole earth? radical ideas for conservation, and their implications. Oryx 51(3): 407–410.  Back to cited text no. 2
Carmichael, D., J. Hubert, B. Reeves, and A. Schance. 1994. Sacred sites, sacred places. London: Routledge.  Back to cited text no. 3
Haber, A.F. 2009. Animism, relatedness, life: post-western perspectives. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 19(3): 418–430.  Back to cited text no. 4
Humphreys, D. 2017. Rights of Pachamama: the emergence of an earth jurisprudence in the Americas. Journal of International Relations and Development 20(3): 459–484.  Back to cited text no. 5
Liljeblad, J. and B. Verschuuren. 2019. Indigenous perspectives on sacred natural sites: culture, governance and conservation. London & New York: Routledge.  Back to cited text no. 6
Studley, J. and V.W.V. Bleisch. 2018. Juristic personhood for sacred natural sites: a potential means for protecting nature. PARKS (The International Journal of Protected Areas and Conservation). 24(1): 81–96.  Back to cited text no. 7


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