In Langscape Magazine Articles

A Few Short Journeys along the Nature-Culture Continuum: Reflections on Community-Led Conservation

September 01, 2018

by Jessica Brown

The village Chief and Elders

The village Chief and Elders of a community in the Togo Range of Ghana at a sacred spring. Care of this spring is vital to the health of this community. Photo: Jessica Brown, 2016

In late 2016, I made my first visit to the sacred forest that belongs to a village in the Togo mountain range of eastern Ghana, hiking up a small mountain to the forest accompanied by a dozen or so people from the community. The sun was beginning to set over the Volta Lakes as we crested the hill just below the forest. It was a magnificent sunset, although, of course, it meant that we would later be descending the mountain in the dark. But the mood of the entire group was buoyant as we arrived at the edge of the sacred grove, having made a few stops along the way to observe certain rituals: spilling libations and petitioning the forest’s spirits for permission to enter.

Once within the forest, we did not pass beyond a point near the entrance shrine—an invisible boundary recognized by everyone from the community—but stood together and peered into the deep grove of trees as more rituals were performed. Despite the fading light, I could easily see that the tree cover extended over a large portion of the mountain. Farmland now surrounds this relict of ancient forest but does not actively encroach upon it. Eventually, we descended in the darkness, jubilant, singing our way down the mountain.

Eventually, we descended in the darkness, jubilant, singing our way down the mountain from the sacred forest.

This is a landscape under robust and vital community-led governance, its natural values inextricably linked to the cultural practices of the people who serve as its stewards. Our lateness in ascending the mountain that afternoon was precisely due to the vitality of this traditional governance. To visit the sacred forest, the necessary protocols must be followed. As with most rural villages in Ghana, all visitors are expected to meet with the Chief or a surrogate, such as the regent, to explain their purpose and seek permission. Our visit was not unexpected—a local nongovernmental organization that works closely with this community had advised it of our visit and accompanied us there. When we arrived (later than planned), we were quickly ushered into a courtyard to meet with the village leadership: the Chief, the traditional priest, and the village spokesperson (or “linguist,” as they are called in Ghana). A pleasant conversation ensued (interpreted from Ewe, the local language, into English) and, after some time, permission was granted. An enthusiastic group of guides soon assembled. And that is why it was rather late in the day when we finally began our journey up the mountain.

Volta Lakes

View of Volta Lakes from just below a sacred forest in the Togo range of Ghana. Photo: Jessica Brown, 2016

I have since visited this community and its sacred forest a second time (arriving earlier on that occasion and ascending in the daylight) and am continuing to learn about local people’s relationship with this cultural landscape, including the customary law and practices governing their use of the forest and surrounding farmlands. And in May 2018, at the invitation of the village leaders, I will return for a third visit: this time to help launch a collaborative project to empower the community and several partners to map the boundaries of the sacred forest, drawing on traditional knowledge.

governance of resources

In rural communities of Ghana, traditional authorities play an important role in the governance of natural resources and stewardship of sacred natural sites, such as forests. Photo: Jessica Brown, 2016

These stewardship practices at the local level do not exist in a vacuum: policies at the national level are critical to their being sustained over the long term. Over a decade ago, when Ghana passed legislation in support of Community Resource Environmental Management Areas, it created the kind of enabling policy environment that is so important to fostering community-led stewardship of the country’s special landscapes. With this legislation in place, the prospects are greatly improved that traditional governance of the sacred groves found throughout Ghana, as well as other areas under community stewardship, will continue to thrive.

Stewardship practices at the local level do not exist in a vacuum: policies at the national level are critical to their being sustained over the long term.

This living example of community-led stewardship of a special landscape is paralleled at sites throughout Ghana—as it is in myriad (bio)cultural landscapes and seascapes all over the world. I offer this story of my visit to the sacred grove because it represents one small step in my own personal journey of seeking to understand, more deeply, the interlinkages between nature and culture, and the fundamental role of communities in stewardship. This journey has played out over two decades, in part through my involvement in global conservation networks such as the World Commission on Protected Areas of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (where I chair the Specialist Group on Protected Landscapes) and also through more recent collaborations with the other two advisory bodies to the World Heritage Convention, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM). It is likewise inextricable from my work with the New England Biolabs Foundation, whose mission is to support communities in stewardship of landscapes and seascapes and the associated biocultural diversity. As someone originally trained in nature conservation, I have found this to be an endlessly intriguing and challenging pursuit. And, so it seems, the journey continues.

Journeys along the Nature-Culture Continuum

Like many of my colleagues, I have long been troubled by the nature–culture divide in conservation planning and practice. While things are slowly changing in the world of heritage conservation (by which I mean natural, as well as cultural, heritage), the divide persists—embedded as it is in many protected area designations and conceptual planning models and further reinforced by public policies, the delegation of institutional responsibilities, and the allocation of resources.

Bridging the nature–culture gap is critical to making protected areas of all kinds relevant to people and meeting future conservation challenges.

Bridging the nature–culture gap is critical to making protected areas of all kinds relevant to people and meeting future conservation challenges. We risk ignoring the “full value of parks,” as Dave Harmon and Allen Putney reminded us in their 2003 publication, unless we embrace a diverse array of values—natural as well as cultural and, with respect to cultural values, tangible as well as intangible—in protected areas planning, designation, and management.

And yet, the reality we actually inhabit transcends these divisions; the bridge between nature and culture is all around us. The landscape and seascape (or “waterscape”) are, after all, both source and expression of the biocultural diversity of life. As Adrian Phillips has written, “Landscape is a meeting ground—a place where nature and culture are intertwined—and a place that holds the past and the present, as well as tangible and intangible values.” Why, then, are integrative approaches not the norm?

These days, we find ourselves speaking more frequently of journeys of discovery along the nature–culture continuum. Calls to adopt more integrative, biocultural approaches to conservation are being taken up in the planning of major conferences and other joint initiatives. Notably, this has involved collaboration among key institutions from both the “nature” and “culture” sides of the spectrum, including the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), ICOMOS, ICCROM, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Centre. It has included prominent thematic streams at a few recent, major international conferences: for example, the “Nature–Culture Journey” that was part of IUCN’s 2016 World Conservation Congress in Hawai’i, and the more recent “Culture–Nature Journey” embedded in ICOMOS’s General Assembly in Delhi in late 2017. Looking ahead, when the United States Committee for ICOMOS convenes its annual symposium at the end of this year, it will carry forward the culture–nature theme as being central to more effective conservation in a changing world.

These days, we find ourselves speaking more frequently of journeys of discovery along the nature–culture continuum.

These gatherings have provided a needed space within which to deepen the dialogue and exchange among a widening group of practitioners, researchers, and stewards that find themselves stepping away from one or the other polarities of the nature–culture continuum in search of more holistic approaches. Following the IUCN Congress, Nora Mitchell, Brenda Barrett, and I brought out a compilation of essays on the theme of Nature–Culture Journeys: Exploring Shared Terrain (published as a special issue of the George Wright Society’s journal, The George Wright Forum) that reflect on what this journey means to each of us. In explorations of the “entangled dimensions” of nature and culture, the importance of place attachment, and how the nature–culture divide manifests—and is bridged—in World Heritage, the authors illuminate new directions in this ongoing process.

The View from World Heritage

Arguably, in the case of World Heritage these nature–culture divisions are magnified, and at the same time, the conditions are enhanced for their potential reconciliation. The World Heritage Convention presents a tremendous opportunity to advance integrated approaches to conservation, bringing together as it does natural and cultural heritage within one international instrument. Forty-five years since its adoption, however, challenges remain. Letícia Leitão observed (in her contribution to the aforementioned compilation of essays) that “a truly integrated consideration of these two dimensions is yet to be conceived. For most of the Convention’s history, cultural and natural heritage have been conceptualized and implemented as parallel but largely separate worlds.”

The World Heritage Convention presents a tremendous opportunity to advance integrated approaches to conservation, bringing together as it does natural and cultural heritage within one international instrument.

Importantly, however, the World Heritage Convention continues to evolve. Writing in the same compilation, Peter Bille Larsen and Gamini Wijesuriya argued that, although the divide has persisted, the momentum is now building for approaches to World Heritage that embrace the interconnections between nature and culture. They describe a number of parallel developments. As the convention has spread beyond its European mainstays, there is now a broadening array of World Heritage sites whose heritage values and attributes defy narrow conceptions of nature and culture. Further, there has been a shift in thinking in both the nature and culture fields away from ideas of “freezing heritage as ‘static’ values and attributes to one of recognizing heritage as dynamic, interrelated, and complex.” And what constitutes “heritage expertise” is being understood much more broadly and inclusively, as expressed here by Larsen and Wijesuriya:

“A growing critique from civil society, not least Indigenous Peoples, also underlines the need to shift from heritage as an exclusive expert domain towards one building on local community perspectives and values that often defy narrow nature–culture distinctions. Where nature conservation just a few decades ago was dominated by natural scientists and management experts, it today includes Indigenous and local community voices often stressing interlinkages through local knowledge, livelihood practices, and age-old landscape connections. In many cultural sites, the significance of natural values and local socio-environmental dynamics are equally gaining importance.”

Alongside those described above, a number of developments over the past decade or so have set the stage for integration of nature and culture and for more inclusive approaches that engage Indigenous Peoples and local communities in stewardship of World Heritage. One important development was the 2007 decision to include Community as the “fifth C” in the strategic objectives of the World Heritage Convention (complementing those of Credibility, Conservation, Capacity-building, and Communication), thereby explicitly recognizing the important role of communities in conservation of World Heritage sites. This decision, taken at the thirty-first session of the World Heritage Committee in 2007 in New Zealand, reflects an increasing demand for community engagement at all stages of the World Heritage process and for rights-based approaches that link conservation and sustainable development. In parallel, the emergence of the governance concept in protected areas has provided an important framework for recognizing and supporting the vital role that Indigenous Peoples and local communities play in stewardship. Finally, an emphasis on achieving management effectiveness in all kinds of protected areas, including World Heritage sites, has highlighted the need to forge strong partnerships with communities.

There is an increasing demand for community engagement at all stages of the World Heritage process and for rights-based approaches that link conservation and sustainable development.

An earlier milestone was the 1992 inclusion of the cultural landscapes category within the framework of the convention. The revision of the World Heritage Operational Guidelines to include this category, recognizing outstanding examples of the “combined works of nature and man,” created a new opportunity to inscribe sites that embody the interactions between humans and nature and contain diverse tangible and intangible values.

Connecting Practice

One promising example of an effort to bridge the nature–culture divide in World Heritage practice on the ground is Connecting Practice, a joint initiative of IUCN and ICOMOS to explore a more genuinely integrated consideration of natural and cultural heritage under the convention. Specifically, the project aims to “explore, learn and create new methods of recognition and support for the interconnected character of the natural, cultural and social value of highly significant land and seascapes and affiliated biocultural practices.” It does this, in part, by bringing together interdisciplinary teams, drawn from different parts of the nature–culture spectrum, for joint missions at World Heritage sites. While each assignment involves unique objectives, all of the teams are tasked with exploring the cultural and natural heritage of these sites, while teasing out their “entangled dimensions.”

Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve

The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site encompasses diverse coastal and marine environments, including sandy beaches, rocky beaches, sand dunes, mangroves, shallow bays, and coral reefs. Photo: Jessica Brown, 2015

In early 2015, I was fortunate to participate in one of the Connecting Practice teams undertaking a mission to Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Our team was composed of two “nature” people and two “culture” people, though it soon became evident that none of us fit neatly into one or the other categories. Not surprisingly, our interests were much broader, underpinned by a desire to find ways to approach our work more holistically. We arrived at our mission site eager to get to know the Sian Ka’an landscape and seascape and find those entangled dimensions!

Our assignment in Sian Ka’an opened our eyes to a key challenge in World Heritage: managing for multiple values beyond those recognized for their Outstanding Universal Value (OUV). This can be particularly challenging for World Heritage sites designated in the early days of the Convention. Inscribed as World Heritage in 1987, Sian Ka’an was listed for natural criteria only because these features were the ones identified as rising to the level of OUV. This has posed various challenges in taking an integrated approach to nature and culture in site management. Sian Ka’an’s natural values are many: exceptional biodiversity, and an intricate system of rivers, lagoons, and sinkholes called cenotes. Sian Ka’an encompasses 110 kilometers of the Meso-American Barrier Reef and associated marine and coastal ecosystems, including extensive areas of mangroves and wetlands.

The current World Heritage designation does not explicitly include the site’s archaeological features, as these were not thought to represent OUV. These features include several Maya temples—dramatic evidence of that ancient civilization—but also subtler human-made features, such as canals and the ancient sacbe paths that traverse the forest. These cultural features were somehow invisible to the original evaluators and, therefore, ignored in the nomination document, as was the vibrant contemporary culture still evident in nearby Maya communities.

Sian Ka’an’s cultural features were somehow invisible to the original World Heritage evaluators and, therefore, ignored in the nomination document, as was the vibrant contemporary culture still evident in nearby Maya communities.

Indeed, it was within these contemporary Maya communities, and within the broader landscape and seascape just outside the boundaries of the Sian Ka’an World Heritage Site, that our Connecting Practice team found nature–culture connections being made most actively. During our mission, we saw projects that keep alive traditional knowledge of medicinal plants and pass along stories to younger generations, livelihood initiatives drawing on traditional practices of beekeeping and farming, and efforts to promote local gastronomy based on heirloom varieties of crops.


A curandera in the community of Señor explains the medicinal qualities of a vine. A number of projects are promoting the revival of traditional ecological knowledge and transfer to younger generations in communities near Sian Ka’an. Photo: Jessica Brown, 2015

These and many other projects linking livelihoods and conservation in the communities near Sian Ka’an have been supported by the COMPACT (Community Management of Protected Areas for Conservation) initiative of the United Nations Development Programme/Global Environmental Facility (in partnership with the UNESCO World Heritage Center and the United Nations Foundation) through community facilitation, small grants, capacity-building, and networking among project leaders. With extensive on-the-ground experience at World Heritage sites in diverse regions, COMPACT has developed a participatory method for engaging local communities in the conservation and shared governance of World Heritage and other globally significant protected areas. As a consultant with SGP over the past several years, I have had the opportunity to visit COMPACT projects not only in Sian Ka’an but in several other of the initiative’s target landscapes, including Mount Kenya, Mount Kilimanjaro, and the Meso-American Barrier Reef Reserve System of Belize, and to support recent work in collaboration with the UNESCO World Heritage Centre to adapt and replicate the COMPACT model at new sites.

a COMPACT project

A COMPACT project on carbon capture has supported Indigenous communities, such as the Ejido de Felipe Carrillo Puerto, in forest stewardship in the landscape around Sian Ka’an. Photo: Omar Martinez Castillo, 2011

At the time of our Connecting Practice mission in Sian Ka’an, Julio Moure, the COMPACT local coordinator, was working with communities and partners such as the Maya Intercultural University on projects to sustain Mayan language and culture, including recovery of native seed stock, reviving the use of natural dyes for handicrafts, and the production of bilingual manuals (in Spanish and Yucateq Maya) presenting traditional ecological knowledge in formats relying on images, symbolic representations, and legends. We learned of a carbon capture project involving a Maya community in the Ejido de Felipe Carillo Puerto and of another effort linking five ejidos (communal farms sanctioned by the state) to improve forest conservation and secure timber certification within a 200,000-ha area. We spent a morning kayaking with a group of women who are training to be tour guides in the canals, rivers, and wetlands of Sian Ka’an and who wove local stories and traditional knowledge of the plants and animals we were seeing into their interpretation of this waterscape.

Recently, in a session of the ICOMOS Scientific Symposium in late 2017, I had the opportunity to reflect on the experience of our Connecting Practice team in Sian Ka’an and what it had taught us about bridging the nature–culture divide to adopt more integrated approaches to conservation. Among the take-home lessons from that mission were these simple observations: a) World Heritage offers an excellent framework within which to explore how we can better bring together nature and culture, conceptually as well as in on-the-ground conservation practice in all kinds of landscapes and seascapes; b) we need to work together—and we can! It’s a matter of creating the opportunities and “setting the table” for collaborative work, such as through the opportunities offered by the Connecting Practice initiative; c) by working together, not only are we able to better understand each other’s perspectives but we are also sometimes able to jointly tease out new problems and opportunities that might have been ignored had we been working alone; and d) particularly when the disciplinary and institutional divides are deeply entrenched, however, this process inevitably takes time and patience. Real progress will require engagement by a broader group of actors than just the World Heritage advisory bodies, of course. It will require investment by donors. It will rely on the engagement of a diverse array of institutions, ranging from government bodies to academic institutions, to NGOs, to community-led institutions responsible for the traditional governance of natural and cultural heritage.

Within this latter group are found those responsible for the day-to-day stewardship of so many of the world’s landscapes and seascapes and of the biocultural diversity found in these places. These contemporary stewards have much to teach us about connecting nature and culture, as I learned in the landscape surrounding Sian Ka’an and later on the edge of the sacred forest in Ghana. In reflecting on my own nature–culture journey, I am reminded of how often they have been my guides.


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Jessica Brown is Executive Director of the New England Biolabs Foundation, whose mission is to foster stewardship of biocultural landscapes and seascapes. She has three decades of experience with community-based conservation, having worked in countries of Africa, the Caribbean, Mesoamerica, Andean South America, Central and Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. She chairs the Protected Landscapes Specialist Group of IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas.

Further Reading

Brown, J., & Hay-Edie, T. (2014). Engaging Local Communities in Stewardship of World Heritage: A Methodology Based on the COMPACT Experience. World Heritage Paper No. 40. Paris, France: UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

Harmon, D., & Putney, A. D. (2003). The Full Value of Parks: From Economics to the Intangible. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Mitchell, N., Brown, J., & Barrett, B. (Eds.). (2017). Nature–Culture Journeys: Exploring Shared Terrain (Thematic Issue of The George Wright Forum). Retrieved from

Ortsin, G. (2015). Ecological and socio-cultural resilience in managing traditional sacred landscapes in the coastal savannah ecosystem of Ghana. In K. Taylor, A. St. Clair, & N. Mitchell (Eds.), Conserving Cultural Landscapes Challenges and New Directions (pp. 129–143). New York, NY: Routledge.

Phillips, A. (2005). Landscape as a meeting ground: Category V protected landscapes/seascapes and world heritage cultural landscapes. In J. Brown, N. Mitchell, & M. Beresford (Eds.), The Protected Landscape Approach: Linking Nature, Culture and Community (pp. 19–36). Gland, Switzerland: IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.


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