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As the highest and most impressive features of the landscape, mountains have an unusual power to awaken a sense of the sacred. Their soaring summits, the clouds and thunder that swirl about their peaks, the life-giving waters that flow from their heights, these and other characteristics imbue them with an aura of mystery and sanctity. In that aura, people of diverse backgrounds, both traditional and modern, experience a deeper reality that gives meaning and vitality to their lives. Drawing on many of the themes associated with sacred mountains around the world, The Mountain Institute in Washington DC has developed with the US National Park Service innovative educational activities that highlight the spiritual and cultural meanings of natural features of mountain environments in different cultures. The purpose of the project is to connect a broad range of visitors with nature, enrich their experiences, and give them deep-seated, sustainable reasons for conserving the environment. Efforts to conserve the environmental integrity and cultural diversity associated with sacred mountains need to involve the many diverse peoples and traditions that revere and care for them.
“I am more and more convinced that we shouldn't follow the examples of development of Europe and the United States,” says Monseñor Alvaro Ramazzini, Bishop of San Marcos and President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Guatemala. “It's true that they provide a certain degree of well-being but we are seeing that in the long run this is at the expense of the environment and all that is natural—life is becoming increasingly artificial. Development in our mountain regions must be based on knowledge of and respect for the cultural values of the people who live there.” When the bishop speaks of people's cultural values, he is referring to the Mayan culture, embedded in ancient Mayan spiritual traditions. The present article aims to show how a blend of Catholic and Mayan spirituality is the basis of the approach to development in the mountains adopted by the Pastoral Social of the Diocese of San Marcos. The vision is of a development model based on values of human dignity and solidarity—a model that does not mean abandoning life in rural communities nor the Mayan reverence for nature.
Best conservation results are achieved when maximum attention is given to local participation through appropriate communication and education. In the western Karakorum, Pakistan—where religious institutions and leaders enjoy the respect of the local communities and the Islamic perception of the environment is traditionally conservation oriented—communication and education regarding conservation were found to be very successful when enabled by religious leaders. This article presents examples of conservation interventions attempted with local community groups and traditional institutions. The mediation of local religious teachers enhanced community participation in collecting knowledge about and protecting biodiversity in a region under population pressure. The leaders' support for conservation education and their mediation between traditional beliefs and practices on the one hand, and new insights and trends from the world at large on the other, also made it possible to address conflict-laden issues emerging from the tourism industry in this fascinating mountain region.
Ancestors, taboos, spirits, rice, and cattle are Madagascar's strongest traditional foundations—indispensable “food” for most, if not all, rural Malagasy people. On the other hand, nationalism, “development,” private enterprise, and conservation of biodiversity are unavoidable modern spin-offs of globalization that influence Malagasy life, even in the most remote mountain areas. How do Malagasy people deal with these opposing forces, and can they negotiate ways of life that integrate both traditional and modern values? As illustrated in the present article, experience shows that members of rural civil society, proudly upholding traditional values and remaining strongly rooted in natural and spiritual worlds such as ancestors, spirits, and sacred sites (Figure 1), can become committed actors and promoters of Voluntary Protected Area (VPA) initiatives. Ancestral spirituality, local knowledge and traditional practices, previously seen as obstacles to conservation and development, can—in partnership with scientific ecological and economic understanding—become effective tools and offer solutions for biodiversity conservation and sustainable mountain development.
In the western Himalaya, the overlap of geography, religion and politics created a cosmic view that appeared to render “secular history” superfluous. Pre-modern states and communities in the region used natural phenomena to create a religious tradition, and then draw upon religion to form a sociopolitical organization. The present article attempts to explain how, in this mountainous region, the natural surroundings were the significant context within which belief systems and social structures operated. It examines the situation prevailing in the 19th and early 20th centuries in the small medieval principality of Kumharsain. Because of its semi-isolation, many of the village cults seem to have retained their roots in natural phenomena. Brahmanical orthodoxy later built upon indigenous beliefs as it spread to the countryside. The state deity was placed close to the rulers, while the indigenous village gods lived with the common folk. An intimate relationship existed between landscape, religious cults and social structure. Even today this relationship persists. It influences both local politics and decision-making processes in matters of development.
For the native population in the Andes, the mountains are sacred places and central elements of a mythical historical identity, since the founding fathers, according to Inca legend, arose out of the land. In honor of this tradition, the mountains are objects of worship: one asks for their protection, while returning, through sacrifice, the wealth obtained from the earth. The mountains, moreover, are the place of the dead and of different gods and spirits that require special attention. In the mining centers, for example, there is an ambivalent figure, El Tío, both evil and good, residing in the dark caves deep below ground. These belief systems, reproduced over and over again in ritual acts, inform everyday practices of the Andean population and constitute part of its world view. They are the result of the conflictive combination of Spanish Catholicism and Indian cosmology during the modern period. Ignoring this tradition turned out to have considerable drawbacks for development agencies and the political parties that tried to organize miners. The religious culture of this mountain society was, and to a certain degree still is, an important source of class struggle and a basis for development politics.
In the debate about sacred mountains, authors often voice the opinion that sacredness is endangered by, or even lost under the influence of, modern economic and social development. But how legitimate is it to generalize this assumption or assessment? The present article shows that, in the case of Europe, history has proceeded in the opposite direction: here, one can observe clear indications of a sacralization process during the modern era, while in earlier periods mountains had much less religious significance. This paper first demonstrates that there are signs of an increase in the sense of the sacredness of mountains in Europe, in both religious and non-religious domains since the 16th century; it then places this development in the context of the particular Christian tradition and its redefinition during the modern age of economic and intellectual modernization. The evidence is taken mainly from the Alpine area.
Does the history of religion in mountains yield insights specific to this environment? The present article offers an introduction to the issues at stake in relation to this question, on the basis of an exploration in different European contexts, conducted over several years by an interdisciplinary team. Concrete answers to this question focus mainly on the case of the recruitment of Roman Catholic clergy in the Central Pyrenees, with additional examples from the rest of southern Europe. Some historians have argued that priests came particularly often from mountain regions between the Middle Ages and modern times. Observations of migration flows should not, however, lead us to adopt a simplistic form of geographical determinism. For a better understanding of the question, it is necessary to investigate local forms of church organization and the social and economic status of priests. It is also important to examine the relations between priests, their families, and the different layers of the surrounding society. Examples given here indicate that what seems particular to mountains is historical delay. Upland communities often resisted centralistic Church reforms and tried to maintain as much control over their ecclesiastical resources as possible. This form of resistance to change in certain European mountain regions during the early modern period might be the most adequate explanation for the particularity of mountain priests' activities and migratory behavior.
The symbolic appropriation of mountains may be a universal phenomenon, yet it can also be highly specific to one religion or confession, located in one region and historical context. An interesting case in point is “Catholic Alpinism” in the Italian Alps. This popular movement began around the mid-19th century, when some curates, based in upland communities, some educators and some urban priests identified the mountains as a place for wholesome enjoyment and austere education. It was not that the Catholic world had totally lacked an interest in the mountains before. But in order to create a new way of mountaineering, it was necessary, first of all, to change the negative image of mountains which had taken root in European culture and had been codified during the early modern period. After the change occurred, the number of priest-scientists exploring the Alps increased steadily. Yet for “Catholic Alpinism” to take off, other meanings had to be read into the mountains. Crucial was the challenge by the British: Catholic Alpinism set in as an alternative to the expansion of British sporting alpinism (based more on Protestant creeds), and later, to increasingly extreme forms of physical effort and political nationalism. The Catholic form represented a different way of using the mountains. “The rocks should be a path to virtue,” stated one Italian theologian in 1921. Seventy years later, and against the background of a completely changed ideological and political situation, another theologian maintained that alpinism would only have a future if “a return to spirit” occurred.
During the latter half of the 20thcentury, many mountainous areas throughout the Mediterranean experienced widespread economic and social marginalization. The Majella Massif, perceived for centuries by local inhabitants as a sacred mountain, has since the advent of the Second World War witnessed a steady decline in the population of its surrounding villages and the abandonment of both farmland and pastureland. In 1995 the Majella National Park was established, which includes the mountain and adjoining territory. Despite the area's natural beauty and numerous religious sites, a lack of infrastructure (including hotels, maintained trails, and efficient public transportation) together with insufficient incentives to revive sustainable agricultural and shepherding practices have slowed the development of the park. These trends may be reversed by land use regulations and governmental incentives that take into careful consideration the need to safeguard and develop not only the natural, but also the spiritual and traditional agropastoral resources of the mountain.