Editor Bill Adams
Religious following in biodiversity hotspots: challenges and opportunities for conservation and development
Article first published online: 28 MAR 2011
©2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Volume 4, Issue 3, pages 234–240, June/July 2011
How to Cite
Bhagwat, S. A., Dudley, N. and Harrop, S. R. (2011), Religious following in biodiversity hotspots: challenges and opportunities for conservation and development. Conservation Letters, 4: 234–240. doi: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2011.00169.x
- Issue published online: 7 JUN 2011
- Article first published online: 28 MAR 2011
- Accepted manuscript online: 4 MAR 2011 04:06AM EST
- Received , 12 September 2010, Accepted, 18 February 2011
- Biodiversity hotspots;
- biodiversity conservation;
- economic development;
- ethical values;
- poverty alleviation;
Biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation both have moral agendas. World religions have historically advocated ethical and moral codes of conduct, which can be supportive of these objectives. But can religions play a direct role in conservation and development? We examine the potential of religions in facilitating biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation. A quantitative analysis of countries represented within Conservation International's list of Biodiversity Hotspots suggests a high level of plurality of religious following, but also a significant need for economic development and environmental conservation. Although attitudes of religions toward conservation and development vary widely, and some fundamentalist elements within religions can contradict moral agendas of conservation and development, we suggest that partnerships between conservation and development organizations and mainstream, as well as minor, faith groups might provide a positive force. Such partnerships can render greater public legitimacy and provide capability to mobilize mass support for biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation.
The Convention on Biological Diversity promised “to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level” (CBD 2010). This target has failed and the rate of biodiversity loss is not slowing (Butchart et al. 2010). Simultaneously, the Millennium Development Goals are committed to “eradicate extreme poverty and hunger” by 2015 (UN 2010). There is widespread skepticism about the possibility of reaching this goal (Castello et al. 2010). Current approaches to biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation have significant limitations, ranging from setting unattainable global goals (e.g., Easterly 2009) to a lack of sensitivity to local cultural and social contexts (e.g., Palma-Solis et al. 2008).
A vicious cycle linking poverty with biodiversity loss makes it necessary to address conservation and development together (Adams et al. 2004). Many attempts have been made to do this: for example, Integrated Conservation and Development Projects have tried to create livelihoods for local people while sustaining ecosystems (e.g., Becker 2003), although the efficacy of such approaches has been questioned (McShane & Wells 2004). Despite some isolated successes, there is general consensus that the failures in addressing both biodiversity and poverty are exacerbated by lack of integration of the two agendas (Sachs et al. 2009).
A growing body of literature suggests that conservation and development are often driven by ethical and moral—frequently faith-based—values (Votrin 2005; Orrnert 2006; Van Houtan 2006; Gottlieb 2007; de Groot & Steg 2009; De Cordier 2009). Adams et al. (2004, p. 1148) suggest that “each may be driven by different moral agendas, but there is considerable overlap in practice.” Although some religious doctrines have been questioned over their exploitative approach to the living world (e.g., White 1967), in general religions have historically promoted ethical and moral codes of conduct, including support for conservation (Boyd 1984; Palmer & Finlay 2003). Religions increasingly view environmental issues as part of their ethical compass and leading figures in all mainstream religions have stated support for a conservation agenda (Colwell et al. 2009).
Can religions provide a common theme that intersects “moral agendas” of conservation and development, obviating the need to reinvent a new conservation morality? This question raises two important issues: First, can the tenets of religions support conservation? Second, if so, can we harness these conservation-oriented tenets and thus reinforce new, less well-established norms and principles? There is increasing recognition of the potential of religion-based public support for conservation and development (Palmer & Finlay 2003; Selinger 2004). While we acknowledge that religions are internally diverse, with competing versions and perspectives, some of which are more amenable to environmentalist concern than others (e.g., Taylor 2005), our objective is to understand the broad picture. Therefore, this assessment is based on a quantitative examination of religious following in countries of conservation importance.
Within varied conservation strategies explored over the last decade (e.g., Olson & Dinerstein 2002; Brooks et al. 2006) Conservation International's Biodiversity Hotspots approach remains prominent. Selection of hotspots is based on levels of diversity and extent of original habitat lost (Myers et al. 2000). Biodiversity hotspots are therefore described as the “richest and the most threatened reservoirs of plant and animal life on earth” (CI 2010). However, economic poverty tends to be high within hotspots, making it necessary to address conservation and poverty simultaneously (Fisher & Christopher 2007). Thus, hotspots are sites where the moral agendas of conservation and development coincide. To examine the potential of religion-based public support to conservation and development in hotspots, we ask: First, how many people living in countries within hotspots have a religious affiliation? Second, what is the level of resource use pressure in these countries and is it detrimental to biodiversity conservation? Third, what is the level of poverty and can economic development be reconciled with conservation? Through synthesizing the answers we examine opportunities for religion-based public support for conservation and development.
We chose 125 countries represented in Conservation International's 34 Biodiversity Hotspots (CI 2010), comprising more than 60% of countries and including over 95% of the developing countries. We considered 11 religions (Bahai, Buddhism, Christianity, Daoism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Shinto, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism) as “mainstream faiths” following the Alliance of Religions and Conservation's (ARC) categorization (ARC 2010). Any country that contained part or whole of a CI hotspot was considered a “hotspot country.”
We obtained from the World Factbook of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA 2010) information on the number of people subscribing to mainstream faiths in each hotspot country and its per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) expressed in U.S. dollars. CIA data also report the prevalence of indigenous faiths but these data are uneven so we confine this quantitative analysis to mainstream faiths. We obtained from WWF's Living Planet Report information on the ecological footprint (Ewing et al. 2008) of hotspot countries, expressed as global hectares per person, measuring the biologically productive area that people use for provision of resources and infrastructure, and absorption of waste that these activities generate (WWF 2010).
We interpreted these data with three objectives: (1) To examine the potential of religion-based public support for conservation and development, we calculated the percentage of religious population in each hotspot country; (2) To understand the relationship between economic development and religious following, we examined the correlation between per-capita GDP and percentage of religious population; (3) To understand the extent of human demand on ecosystems in hotspot countries and its relation to religious following, we examined the correlation between ecological footprint and percentage of religious population. Although interpreting data in this fashion can only give a superficial picture, such quantitative “scoping” has been routinely used by ecologists and economists to examine environmental and social patterns (e.g., Vitousek et al. 1997; Collier et al. 2008).
Potential for religion-based public support to conservation and development
Over 70% of the population in hotspot countries, more than four billion people, follow organized religion. Over 85% of hotspot countries have at least 70% of people following organized religions (Figure 1). Nearly 60% have 90–100% of their population subscribing to mainstream faiths; 20% have 80–90% and 10% have 70–80% of their population subscribing to mainstream faiths.
Religious following and ecological footprint
A large majority of hotspot countries have low ecological footprints and high religious populations (Figure 2, Q1). Over 60%, some three billion people, have ecological footprints of less than 2 hectares per person. This means nearly half of the world's population living in hotspot countries has an ecological footprint equivalent to 10% of the earth's land surface.
Religious following and economic development
A large majority of hotspot countries have low per-capita GDP and high religious population (Figure 3, Q1). More than half, with a total population of three billion, have per-capita GDP of less than US$5,000: the poorest 100 countries in the world all have per-capita GDP of less than US $5,000.
Ecological footprint and economic development
There is a strong association between economic development and ecological footprint in hotspot countries (Figure 4). Although it can be argued that the association is similar to the environmental Kuznets curve, which states that the relationship between economic development and ecological footprint has an inverted U- shape (Grossman & Krueger 1995), a majority of data points are in a straight-line association with each other implying that the richer a country is, the higher is its ecological footprint.
The extent of religious following in hotspot countries
On a global level, 80% of people profess some religious allegiance, mainly following one of the 11 mainstream faiths (O’Brien & Palmer 2007), as compared to 70% in the hotspot countries. This proportionately lower number of people following mainstream faiths matches what is known about the significant presence of traditional belief systems in hotspot countries (O’Brien & Palmer 2007), which suggests greater religious plurality rather than a more fundamental rejection of the concept of faith. This has important implications for conservation; a coincidence of cultural and biological diversity has frequently been noted (Nabhan 1998; Loh & Harmon 2005). In Africa, for example, almost all sacred natural sites are associated with animist faiths (Sheridan & Nyamweru 2007). In countries such as Madagascar and Togo, over 50% of people follow indigenous religions (O’Brien & Palmer 2007). A survey of sacred natural sites in protected areas found most related to animist faiths (Dudley et al. 2009) and analysis of around a hundred research projects within sacred natural sites found they contained consistently high biodiversity (Dudley et al. 2010) suggesting that minority religions may play a disproportionately important role in biodiversity conservation. When a mainstream religion replaces a minority faith it sometimes preserves elements of the older faith: many sacred natural sites, now recognized by mainstream faiths, originated within indigenous or folk traditions (Verschuuren et al. 2010). Nearly 60% of hotspot countries, however, have 90–100% of their population affiliated with mainstream faiths; and 85% of these countries have over 70% of their population with religious affiliation (Figure 1), suggesting that mainstream religions might provide an ethical perspective to many people in hotspot countries.
It is important to distinguish, however, between what people say and what they do. For example, CIA (2010) data suggest that Australia has a large religious following while in reality a large proportion of Australia's population does not actively follow any religion (O’Brien & Palmer 2007). The commonest statistics for religious observance, denoted as attending a religious service at least once a week, are coordinated by the University of Michigan World Values project and report variations ranging from 89% in Nigeria to 3% in Japan (Swanbrow 1997). Data on religious following should be taken as only indicative of the potential for religion-based public support. However, even those who do not actively follow a religion may be influenced by an ethical perspective drawing on the dominant religious paradigm.
The values of stewardship of nature or compassion toward others underlying many religions overlap with the moral agendas of conservation and development, suggesting that religions can provide a positive force (Bhagwat et al. 2011). However, some scholars (Winkler 2008; Hall et al. 2009) argue that these concepts may not translate into action. Some fundamentalist elements within religions can contradict moral agendas on various accounts: different worldviews leading to differences in ideologies (e.g., Selinger 2004); conflict between identities leading to proselytizing or denigration by faith groups (e.g., Clarke 2007); and attitudes and behavior of religious followers that are counterproductive to conservation and development (e.g., Peterson & Liu 2008). These admitted problems, however, should not overshadow the potential for positive benefits derived from an overlap of moral agendas.
The extent of resource use pressure, poverty, and religious following
A large majority of hotspot countries have low ecological footprints. The coincidence between high religious following and low ecological footprint has an important implication for conservation. While low demand on ecosystems might make conservation a tangible prospect at present, demand is likely to increase in the future making conservation increasingly challenging. Mainstream conservation programs so far have relied on effective partnerships between international conservation NGOs and the state, but the success of these initiatives is mixed (e.g., Richards 1996; Hviding 2003). Faith groups with a ready-built matrix of proconservation ethics might make valuable partners in effective conservation programs, if the latter are developed in ways that are sympathetic to religious ethical frameworks. For example, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam tend to centre their environmental ethic around the concept of stewardship, and human responsibility for the upkeep and management of nature; while religions originating in Asia, and some indigenous religions tend to emphasize divinity in nature (Taylor 2005). In Sumatra, Indonesia, Islamic principles of Hima (management zones established for sustainable natural resource use); Harim (inviolable sanctuaries used for protecting water resources); and Ihya Al-Mawat (practice of restoring neglected land) are commonly used in management (Science Daily 2010). The extent to which religious authorities will be prepared to address conservation issues remains uncertain, but the old assumptions of the benefits from unlimited growth are increasingly being questioned by religions (Palmer & Finlay 2003).
Given that over three billion people in hotspot countries live in poverty, poverty needs to be tackled concurrently with conservation. While established practice for poverty alleviation is through partnerships between development charities and the state, such programs have a history of mixed success (Bezanson 2004). With high religious following in these countries, mainstream and minor faith groups and development charities might be able to form effective partnerships and enhance the success of development programs in the same way as has been suggested for biodiversity conservation (e.g., McDuie-Ra & Rees 2010). While it has previously been demonstrated that economic growth reduces church attendance in countries that are richer and more Christian than average (Barro & McCleary 2003), in our analysis, we found that none of the highly developed or wealthy hotspot countries have low religious following (Figures 2 and 3, Q4). Some wealthy countries, on the other hand, have high levels of religious following: for instance, Brunei (per-capita GDP US $53,100 and 90% of population with religious affiliation), Spain (US $34,600 and 94%) and Greece (US $32,000 and 99.3%). High levels of economic development, therefore, do not necessarily correspond with low religious following and the potential for collaboration between faith groups and development charities could be substantial as currently less developed countries continue to develop in the future.
Challenge for sustainable development and the role of religion
Among hotspot countries, richer countries have higher ecological footprints suggesting that as the others increase economic growth, their ecological footprints might also increase (e.g., Rees 2003). The challenge for sustainable development, therefore, is to reduce poverty without increasing ecological footprint. Stern (2004) is skeptical about the existence of a simple and predictable relationship between economic development and the ecological footprint. Dasgupta et al. (2002) argue that the risk of increasing footprint with development can be offset by environmental improvements in developing countries that were not available in the past (e.g., Brezis et al. 1993) and therefore peak levels of environmental degradation will be lower than in countries that developed earlier. Rees addresses the issue in a different way by contending that a belief in unlimited economic expansion as a solution for poverty alleviation is conceptually flawed (Rees 2002).
The overlap between ethical-moral values of conservation and development and those promoted by religions might form an increasingly important consideration in the sustainability discourse. For example, “planetary stewardship” as a framework for rapidly reducing anthropogenic damage to the biosphere (sensu Power & Chapin 2009), has remarkably similar subtext to that of the Abrahamic religions’ ideology of “stewardship of nature.” Partnerships with faith groups might potentially benefit biodiversity conservation and economic development by gaining mass support and public legitimacy (e.g., Bhagwat & Palmer 2009). Religious groups are engaged in their community for a long time, as opposed to NGOs who usually depart after a project has ended. These groups might, therefore, form an important component of “exit strategies” adopted by conservation and development organizations.
Limitations of data
This analysis has limitations, which are delineated herein to assist further research: (1) Inconsistencies in data: Data on religious following are only indicative because they are based on assessments carried out in individual countries, using different methodologies. Lack of statistics on membership of minor faiths may also be masking important trends. (2) Inconsistencies in metrics used for comparison: It is assumed that average per-capita GDP figures give a representative picture of economic well-being, although many hotspot countries have an extremely uneven distribution of wealth. Similarly, the concept and calculation of ecological footprints have received criticism (e.g., McDowell 2002). (3) Mismatch of scales: While biodiversity hotspots transcend political boundaries, data on religious following, ecological footprints, and GDP are only available at country level. (4) Lack of data on population densities: Many biodiversity hotspot regions have low populations (Mittermeir et al. 2003), which in turn may influence the predominant faith.
Over four billion people in hotspot countries—nearly two-thirds of the world's population—are affiliated with mainstream faiths, demonstrating the potential for religion-based public support for biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation. Critics might argue that religious beliefs promote conservation only arbitrarily and the extent of religious following is not a true reflection of public support. However, where people follow a religion, they are also likely to be receptive to that religion's ethics of conservation and development. There are thus two reasons why religion may be important to conservation. First, religious conviction can provide a powerful motivation to act not only for individuals but for wider communities. Second, contemporary institutional principles such as “sustainable use” can seldom have the power that long established religious ethics such as stewardship or justice might have. Although more research is needed to assess whether the religious ethic can be harnessed, the potential of employing religions as “joint venture partners” in conservation and development programs appears to be substantial. If partnerships are founded on the overlap of moral agendas rather than on differences, it might be possible to establish important common ground (Bhagwat et al. 2011). While most conservation and development organizations will choose to remain secular in their outlook so as to reach broad audiences, partnerships with faith groups can go a long way toward meeting the goals of global biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation.
The authors acknowledge members of the Society for Conservation Biology's Working Group on Religion and Conservation Biology for their stimulating discussion; M. Palmer for comments on an earlier draft; W.M. Adams and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive suggestions.
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