Workshop — Sacred Forests and Political Ecology: Cosmological Properties and Environmentality


Bixia Chen
Assistant Professor, Agricultural Science, University of the Ryukyus

Christopher Coggins
Professor, Geography/Asian Studies, Bard College at Simon’s Rock


This workshop analyzes the political ecology of sacred forests in East, South, and Southeast Asia, convening scholars engaged in field and archival research on the relationship between forests and the production of sacred space. Working within the theme of environmental humanities in Asia, we examine the vast geographic range of sacred groves in these regions in light of the diversity of cosmologies, ecologies, traditional local resource management practices, and environmental governance systems developed during the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods. Sacred forests are typically common property resources (aka common pool resources) ascribed with qualities of sacrality and inviolability due to their association with sources of transcendent authority. Such authority may be derived from large-scale, canonical, ecclesiastical religions; from local, animistic, indigenous religions; or from a combination of both. The spiritual beliefs governing sacred landscapes, in conjunction with the rituals that instantiate them, tend to change over time, be inscribed or appropriated by state interests, and mediate between local, regional, and national power. Western scholars and conservationists have often romanticized sacred groves as the antithesis of secular, profane spaces of materialist productivism, a perspective infused with Orientalism. Coincident with the globalization of environmental thought, policy, and everyday practice, sacred sites have also become both foci and catalysts for the syncretism of religion and modern nature conservation, and for the making of environmental subjects (environmentality). We present our work on sacred groves through the lens of the tripartite framework of:

  1. Placing the Sacred Forest: dynamic ethnographic and longitudinal approaches to community and regional cosmology;
  2. (Re)Conceptualizing spiritual common properties: analyses of both real and imagined dichotomies between land tenure, resource utilization patterns, and social inclusion/exclusion within sacred groves and beyond them; and
  3. Governing the Sacred Forest Commons: examinations of how state nature conservation policies involving sacred landscapes give rise to new conceptions of nature, cultural, sacrality, profanity, and thus new environmental subjects.

All three themes relate to questions recursively affecting the cosmology and propriety of sacred forests, all of which bear on the sacred forests as small parts of larger material and ideational landscapes. What are the general geographic distributions of sacred forests in each region and how does this affect their formal and informal management? What happens to underlying cosmologies when sacred forests are reconfigured as habitat patches, biological fragments in need of connective corridors, or other elements of “conservation landscapes?” Given the abundance of sacred groves in East, South, and Southeast Asia, what general socio-ecological conditions do they share? How do major religious traditions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Daoism inform sacred forest practices within and across specific regions? How are Asian sacred groves similar to, and different from, sacred groves and other sacred common pool resources in other parts of the world? Why are trees and groves special subjects of veneration and how is this expressed? How does the sacralization of forests and trees inform discourse on the “Anthropocene” and attendant calls for individual and collective reconceptualization and realization of new relationships between humans and non-humans, nature and culture, and economy and ecology? To engage with these questions, we welcome scholars in cultural studies, geography, political science, anthropology, history, sociology, environmental studies, and the humanities broadly defined.