Spiritual Ecology, Sacred Places, and Biodiversity Conservation

Leslie E. Sponsel

Principal Investigator

Professor of Anthropology, and Director of the Ecological Anthropology Program
Department of Anthropology University of Hawaii
Honolulu, Hawaii 96822 U.S.A.

Fieldwork has been conducted since 1986 within a 100 km. radius of Pattani in southern Thailand in collaboration with ecologist Nukul Ruttanadakul, botanist Samporn Juntadach, and other colleagues in the Biology Section of Prince of Songkla University.


Spiritual Ecology: Since the 1960s there has been growing interest in spiritual ecology, and this interest has accelerated markedly since the 1990s with an increasing number of conferences and publications. Spiritual ecology focuses on the relationships between religions and environments from the local to the global levels to address environmental crises, problems, and issues. This reflects the growing realization of numerous and diverse individuals and organizations that greener environmental world views, attitudes, and values are the most fundamental prerequisite for resolving environmental concerns, and that this in turn requires a profound rethinking of the meaning of nature and of the place of humans in it. Thus spiritual ecology operates at two levels, theoretical and practical. The latter includes religious organizations as well as individual spirituality.

Sacred Places: One component of spiritual ecology is sacred places which range along several continua (e.g., natural to anthropogenic, biophysical to sociocultural, prehistoric to recent). These places are special because of some extraordinary attributes that stimulate feelings of power, mystery, awe, transcendence, peace, and healing.

The same sacred place may be recognized as special by individuals from very different cultures, religions, histories, and ecologies, although they may interpret it quite differently. Many sacred places, particularly in nature, may promote environmental and biodiversity conservation, since local communities recognize them as special and prescribe certain behaviors in relation to them.

During periodic visits to southern Thailand from 1986-89 the cultural ecology of adjacent Buddhist and Muslim villages was compared. This was in collaboration with ecologist Nukul Ruttanadakul and other biologists as well as anthropologists at Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani. Support was provided by grants from the University of Hawaii Research Council and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

Phases of Research: Since 1986 Dr. Leslie E. Sponsel (University of Hawaii at Manoa) and Dr. Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel (Chaminade University of Honolulu) have been conducting both library and field research on aspects of spiritual ecology and sacred places in general and in Thailand in particular. Since 1988 research explored in depth aspects of Buddhist ecology, including environmental philosophy, ethics, and actions in relation to forests and their conservation. During the summers of 1994-1995 while on an invited Fulbright Research Fellowship in the Biology Section at Prince of Songkla University, L.E. Sponsel collaborated with Thai biology colleagues in a preliminary survey of the role of sacred places in biodiversity conservation. The focus was on individual sacred trees and on sacred groves.

In 2002 we started developing another new project which focuses on the ecological relationships among Buddist monks, sacred caves, bats, forests, and conservation in Thailand.

Methods and Applications: The team approach in much of this research is holistic and multidisciplinary. It draws on elements from a wide and diverse range of disciplines and specializations: geology, geography, biological ecology, cultural ecology, historical ecology, spiritual ecology, biodiversity studies, conservation biology, environmental philosophy, environmental ethics, environmental education, ethnohistory, ethnography, ethnozoology, ethnobotany, ethnomedicine, Buddhist studies, Buddhist ecology and environmentalism, and religious studies.

The research has practical as well as theoretical implications in terms of promoting cultural identity and cultural and historic preservation as well as environmental and biodiversity conservation.


Journal Articles

1992 "Thailand: Buddhism, Ecology and Forests" The New Road (Gland, Switzerland) 21:4-5 (co-author Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel).

1992 "A Comparison of the Cultural Ecology of Adjacent Muslim and Buddhist Villages in Southern Thailand: A Preliminary Field Report" Journal of the National Research Council of Thailand (Bangkok) 23(2):31-42 (co-author Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel).

1998 "Sacred and/or Secular Approaches to Biodiversity Conservation in Thailand" Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion (Leiden, the Netherlands) 2(1):155-167 (co-authors Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel, Nukul Ruttanadakul, and Somporn Juntadach).

2000 "Does Buddhism Have Any Future?: Some Thoughts on the Possibilities of Buddhist Responses to the 21st Century" Seeds of Peace (Bangkok) 16(1):36-39 (January-April issue)(co-author Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel).

2003, “Sacred Caves, Bats, and Forests: A Case Study in Buddhist Ecology,” Hawai`i Association of International Buddhists XI(1):11-12

2007, “Spiritual Ecology: One Anthropologist’s Reflections,” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 1(3):340-350.

Book Chapters

1988 "Buddhism, Ecology and Forests in Thailand" in Changing Tropical Forests: Historical Perspectives on Today's Challenges in Asia, Australasia, and Oceania, John Dargavel, Kay Dixon, and Noel Semple, eds. Canberra, Australia: Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, pp. 305-325 (co-author Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel).

1991 "Nonviolent Ecology: The Possibilities of Buddhism" in Buddhism and Nonviolent Global Problem-Solving: Ulan Bator Explorations, Glenn D. Paige and Sarah Gilliatt, eds. Honolulu, HI: Center for Global Nonviolence and Spark M. Matsunaga Institute for Peace, pp. 139-150 (co-author Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel). (Available online: http://www.nonkilling.org).

1993 "The Potential Contribution of Buddhism in Developing an Environmental Ethic for the Conservation of Biodiversity" in Ethics, Religion, and Biodiversity: Relations Between Conservation and Cultural Values, Lawrence S. Hamilton, ed. Cambridge, U.K.: White Horse Press, pp. 75-97 (co-author Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel).

1995 "The Role of Buddhism in Creating a More Sustainable Society in Thailand" in Counting the Costs: Economic Growth and Environmental Change in Thailand, Jonathan Rigg, ed. Singapore: Institute for Southeast Asia Studies, pp. 27-46 (co-author Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel).

1997 "A Theoretical Analysis of the Potential Contribution of the Monastic Community in Promoting a Green Society in Thailand" in Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds, Mary Evelyn Tucker and Duncan Williams, eds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, pp. 45-68 (co-author Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel).

2001 "Do Anthropologists Need Religion, and Vice Versa?: Adventures and Dangers in Spiritual Ecology" in New Directions in Anthropology and Environment: Intersections, Carole L. Crumley, ed. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, pp. 177-200.

2001 "Is Indigenous Spiritual Ecology a New Fad?: Reflections from the Historical and Spiritual Ecology of Hawai`i" in Indigenous Traditions and Ecology, John Grim, ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, pp. 159-174.

2001 "Why a Tree is More than a Tree: Reflections on the Spiritual Ecology of Sacred Trees in Thailand" in Santi Pracha Dhamma, Sulak Sivaraksa, et al., eds. Bangkok, Thailand: Santi Pracha Dhamma Institute, pp. 364-373 (co-author Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel).

2002 "Buddhist Views of Nature and the Environment" in Nature Across Cultures: Views of Nature and the Environment in Non-Western Cultures, Helaine Selin, ed. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 351-371 (co-author Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel) .

2003 "Illuminating Darkness: The Monk-Cave-Bat-Ecosystem Complex in Thailand," Socially Engaged Spirituality: Essays in Honor of Sulak Sviaraksa on His 70th Birthday, David W. Chappell, ed., pp. 255-269 (co-author Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel).  Reprinted in This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment, Roger S. Gottlieb, ed., 2004, New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 134-144.

Encyclopedia Articles

1997 "Environment and Nature: Buddhism" in Encyclopaedia of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures, Helaine Selin, ed. Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 290-291.

2005 Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, Bron Taylor and Jeffrey Kaplan, General Editors, New York, NY: Continuum International: articles on Amazonia, anthropologists and nature religion, anthropology as source of nature religion, biodiversity and religion, sacred caves, ecological anthropology, neotropical rainforests and religion, sacred trees, Southeast Asian religion and nature, Yanomami, and "The Noble Savage." (See http://www.religionandnature.com).

2005 Encyclopedia of Anthropology, H. James Birx, ed., Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press (articles on Animism, Religion and Enviroment) 1:80-81 and 5:2006-2009.

2007 Encyclopedia of Earth (articles on “Religion, Nature and Environment” and “Sacred Places and Biodiversity Conservation”) available free online at http://www.eoearth.org.

2008  "Environment and Nature in Buddhism," in Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures (Second edition, online), Helaine Selin, ed., New York, NY: Springer (Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel co-author) 1:768-776.


Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution, Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers ( in preparation for 2011).


Since 1998, Sponsel has served on the Advisory Board for the Forum on Religion and Ecology (FORE) at Harvard University (now at Yale University), and from 2000-2005 on the Task Force on Asia and as one of the Associate Editors for the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, Bron Taylor, Editor-in-Chief. Also, he was one of the founding members of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Culture, and Nature.

Forum on Religion at Ecology at Yale University http://fore.research.yale.edu/

International Society for the Study of Religion, Culture and Nature, and Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature http://www.religionandnature.com/


For more information contact:

Leslie E. Sponsel
Professor of Anthropology
Director, Ecological Anthropology Program

Department of Anthropology
University of Hawai`i
2424 Maile Way – Saunders Hall 317
Honolulu, HI 96822-2223 U.S.A.

Phone: (808) 956-8507
FAX: (808) 956-4893
Email: sponsel@hawaii.edu

The Department of Anthropology offers a concentration in spiritual ecology within the ecological anthropology specialization.