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Rajan Kotru - “If the Himalayan ecosystem remains intact, there will be people rushing there to pursue their spiritual ideals...”

Pioneer of the transboundary Kailash Sacred Landscape Initiative discusses cultural conservation in the Himalayan region

Rajan Kotru attended Session 571 The Next Frontier:

Rajan Kotru, head of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) program on Transboundary Landscapes, attended the Salzburg Global Seminar session The Next Frontier: Transboundary Conservation for Biodiversity and Peace. His project “Kailash Sacred Landscape” is a transboundary conservation initiative covering an area in the Himalayas where China, India, and Nepal all have territory.

The project focuses on the preservation of ecosystems and biodiversity, but with an additional emphasis on cultural conservation – conservation aimed at maintaining the culturally and spiritually significant parts of the landscape. While in Salzburg, Kotru took some time to discuss the importance of integrating spiritual and cultural conservation with more traditional conservation.

Despite a range of conservation efforts in the region beginning in 2005, issues of cultural conservation have remained largely ignored. The majority of efforts focused on tangible or measurable issues, such as ensuring the preservation of natural resources. Rajan Kotru wants to change this.

Kotru believes “the cultural legacy of the Indian sub-continent is linked to the ecosystems and the geographic assets that we have,” with the most important “sacred asset” being the Himalayas. The degradation of geographic assets can have a similar effect on the area's cultural history and significance. These assets are valuable to the local populations, and they are a large source of income for the region: “people are rushing to the Himalayas to meet Buddhists and to meditate.” 

Kotru claims many of the services coming from the Kailash Sacred Landscape are quickly degrading. Nevertheless, there is cause to remain optimistic. Kotru says, "Despite all this degradation that has been happening in the recent years, people are still coming to the Himalayas for spiritual reasons.”

The Himalayas clearly still have great value to many individuals from a spiritual perspective, but, because of this rapid degradation of the ecosystems and environment, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to preserve this cultural heritage. The narrow lens of protecting physical resources, like wood and water, is leaving valuable but less tangible assets, like sacred landscapes and important religious sites, to be eroded away. Kotru believes that to change the way we preserve these precious areas, we need to “change the way we think.”

The example of the Bhutanese model, which measures the happiness of the nation as an important factor in assessing the effectiveness of government, is one example that Kotru studied when looking at the value of cultural preservation. “Culture and spirituality are pillars of happiness,” he says, and so this model is one that is worth studying. In Bhutan, the preservation of cultural heritage is important to the people and the state, because they measure the nation’s happiness. He concedes, “It would be difficult to emulate Bhutan’s model in other countries,” but the emphasis on “respect for culture and for nature” is a lesson that can be almost universally applied.

Kotru makes it clear that “if the Himalayan ecosystem remains intact, there will be people rushing there to pursue their spiritual ideals.” If we change our way of thinking, as Bhutan has, by emphasizing the protection of cultural and spiritual landscapes this will have benefits for biodiversity conservation, for the economic well-being of the areas and its inhabitants, and for the ancient cultures and traditions that are so important in these regions.

Rajan Kotru was a participant in the Salzburg Global session The Next Frontier: Transboundary Cooperation for Biodiversity and Peace, which is part of the multi-year Parks for the Planet Forum. This session was hosted in partnership with IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), MAVA Foundation, Arcus Foundation, Aga Khan Foundation, German cooperation (Deutsche Zusammenarbeit), Huffington Foundation, Robert Bosch Stiftung, the Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Foundation, and others. More information on the session can be found here.

Christopher Hamill-Stewart