A team of researchers from the Universities of Kassel, Göttingen and Kurdistan is studying this form of local nature conservation

How much do traditional practices contribute to protecting local biodiversity? Why and how are local sacred groves valued and protected, and how can this be promoted and used for environmental protection? Together with the University of Kurdistan, researchers from the University of Göttingen and the University of Kassel have investigated the background to this form of local environmental protection in the Baneh district in Iran.

“All over the world, local communities voluntarily protect certain parts of their environment for religious reasons – be it in Ethiopia, Morocco, Italy, China or India”, reports Professor Tobias Plieninger, head of the section Social-ecological interactions in agricultural systems at the Universities of Kassel and Goettingen. Sacred natural sites are places where traditional myths and stories meet local ecological knowledge and environmental protection. In addition to state protection programs, these form a network of informal nature reserves.

In the contested border areas between Iran and Iraq, state environmental protection programs often fail, while natural resources come under severe pressure. Even in conflict areas like this, there are still species-rich forest areas thanks to informal nature conservation traditions – in the form of decades-old sacred natural sites, some of which are known as “sacred groves”.

Sacred groves are common in the Middle East, but very little explored these bio-cultural hotspots. They usually belong to a mosque and serve as village cemeteries, the use of which is strictly regulated. Although they usually only take up a small area – an average of 1 hectare – they are comparatively rich in biodiversity, provide numerous ecosystem services and are of great cultural and spiritual importance for the local population.

The locals consider them to be the abode of their ancestors. Dr. Zahed Shakeri, who accompanied the project as a postdoc and grew up in the region himself, reports on the numerous myths and legends that surround these sites and that require careful maintenance and respectful behavior. “Our research group has developed a fascination for the botanical treasures of these sites,” says Plieninger. In a vegetation study, they found that the taxonomic diversity in sacred groves is much higher than in neighboring cultural areas. The composition of the vegetation is also fundamentally different here.

“The 22 sacred groves examined comprised 20% of the flora of the entire region. In addition, they are home to numerous rare and endangered plants and represent complex niches for endangered animals, ”reports Shakeri. “Because of this taxonomic diversity, sacred groves can serve as an important addition to formally protected areas in the region and as a basis for their reconstruction.” Natural sites worldwide. The perceptions of the local residents about sacred groves and the reasons for their relatively good condition in the region were also the subject of this study.

Based on interviews with 205 residents from 25 villages, the research group identified the central motives of the people for the protection of the areas: In particular, spiritual values, the preservation of cultural and spiritual heritage and local biodiversity played a role. In addition, the importance of taboos became clear, which in particular prohibit the use of natural resources (e.g. clearing, hunting and pasture) and road construction, but also regulate general behavior within these areas.

Even if these social values ​​and taboos are considered relatively stable in the Kurdistan Province, the respondents repeatedly pointed to the threatened situation of the groves in the region. The main bearers of these values ​​and taboos were the elderly and rural populations, women and people with traditional lifestyles. “Protection programs could help these groups defend and revive their customs. At the same time, young and urban people with modern lifestyles represent an important target group for raising awareness, ”summarizes Shakeri.

The example of the sacred groves shows that social dynamics and, in particular, cultural values ​​in environmental protection deserve greater attention: “Such a biocultural nature conservation approach, which takes different worldviews and knowledge systems into account, could turn social taboos and associated land use practices into socially acceptable and environmentally effective conservation results,” concludes Plieninger.


On the online blog of the research group Social-ecological interactions in agricultural systems: https: //Medium.com /people-nature-landscapes

The (English) blog articles:

Sacred groves in Kurdistan: biodiversity, locally preserved

Sacred groves as a safe haven for biodiversity and culture in Kurdistan

Original publications: Plieninger, T., Quintas-Soriano, C., Torralba, M., Muhammadi Sammani, K., & Shakeri, Z. 2020 Social dynamics of values, taboos and perceived threats around sacred groves in Kurdistan, Iran. Man and Nature 2: 1237-1250 AND

Shakeri, Z., Mohammadi-Samani, K., Bergmeier, E. & Plieninger, T. 2021. Spiritual values ​​shape the taxonomic diversity, vegetation composition and conservation status in forests of northern Zagros, Iran. Ecology and Society 26, Art. 30th

https: //doi.Organization/10.5751 /ES-12290-260130


Professor Tobias Plieninger

Head of the Section Social-Ecological Interactions in Agricultural Systems

E-mail: [email protected]

Imke Horstmannshoff

Project management & communication

Section Social-Ecological Interactions in Agricultural Systems

E-mail: [email protected]


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