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Is conservation undermining the protection of Tibetan Spiritscapes and disenfranchising their

indigenous guardians and numinous owners?

An altar on the roof of a house in Upper Yubeng for honouring and appeasing the gzhi bdag that
inhabit snow peak min tso mu and forested peak ben de ru [Studley 2013]

The sacred natural sites (SNSs) of indigenous societies are mostly supported by a cosmovision that
embraces animism and numinous spiritscapes. Spiritscapes are inhabited, in common with Indian
Sacred Groves, by a presiding divinity or numina and the phenomenon is characterized by psychospiritual connections, cosmic auditing and reciprocity, and behaviour that mimics explicit nature
conservation. In spite of this spiritscapes appear to be less recognised than SNSs associated with
mainstream faiths and misguided conservation paradigms robs them of their cosmological,
cultural, psychological, social and spiritual significance.
Tibetan Spiritscapes (or numinised SNSs)
Spiritscapes are a defining characteristic of Tibetan lay society and are exemplified in mountain
cults and ritually protected refugia (skyabs). Historically the cultural identity of Tibetan nomads
and farmers was predicated on the honouring of their territorial divinity (a yul lha) and the numina
(gzhi bdag) that inhabit most of their Sacred Natural Sites (or gzhi bdag gnas yul). Most mountains
in the Tibetan world are inhabited by a gzhi bdag associated with specific lay communities and
territories. They are part of an animistic and shamanistic tradition concerned with the immediate
world, involving various ceremonies and rituals that take place in the home and mountain locales.
The gzhi bdag theoretically 'tamed' by Buddhism are closer to Tibetan nomads and farmers in both
geography, identity and in sensed presence. In the world of the lay Tibetan, many landscape
features point back to the pre-Bon and pre-Buddhist worship of ancient gods. Tibetans are not only
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conscious of the constant scrutiny of gzhi bdag but engage in rituals and place demands on them
for protection and health, and success, in hunting, trading, travel, farming etc. Participation in
mountain cults is still an essential element of rural Tibetan life and identity and is expressed in
cultural, economic, eco-spiritual and political behaviour. Additionally as a spontaneously recovered
folk practice the gzhi bdag cult lies outside of state control and is a contemporary means of
expressing unique Tibetanness.

Traditional interactions with Sacred Natural Sites


The ritual protection of the domain (or gnas yul) of a gzhi bdag, might be described by
conservationists as explicit nature conservation. In reality, however, the behaviour is much more
complex and sophisticated with humankind comprising only one element of the topocosm under
the rubric of indigenous spiritually-guided governance. Nature conservation, Custodianship
and neoliberal governance are alien concepts that cannot be abstracted from the indigenous reality
of being part of the natural world or belonging to nature.
The Tibetan word co-opted for nature conservation is khor yug srung skyob which is a neologism
without a dynamic equivalent. On the basis of cognitive mapping conducted in Ganzi Prefecture
(2000-2005) it would appear that a nexus (rten brel) of five values coalesce closely around the lay
Tibetan concept of protection (or srung skyob). These seemingly include
1) gzhi bdag gnas yul srung skyob i.e. the ritual protection of Spritcapes (gzhi bdag) and the
reciprocal benefits gained from their protection namely Blessing (byin rlabs) and the gift
or cosmocentric economy which provides environmental and hydrological services.
2) srung skyob byas pa i.e. doing protection (e.g. preventing poaching) by Green monks
(Tibetan Buddhism),
but not conservation or srung dzin (under the aegis of state socialism or state forestry). This
latter finding is supported by research at Lugu Lake (in 2005) where conservation was ranked 8
out of 13 environmental values. Conservation is often regarded as an alien intervention which at
best has a very limited interpretation of culture and at worse is culturally chauvinistic. In contrast
for most lay Tibetans the animistic spiritual importance of protection (srung skyob) is more
significant than the ecological importance of conservation (srung dzin).

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The status of Tibetan gzhi bdag sites


On the basis of a literature study, a bio-cultural audit and GIS mapping it would appear that
spiritscapes are a common phenomenon throughout the Tibetan world and may comprise up to
25% of the Tibetan Plateau (or ca 570,000km2) and up to 60% in some areas (The Yubeng Valley).
The results and conclusions suggest that most Tibetan lay people:1) Are familiar with the gzhi bdag cult and estimate that there are typically three gzhi bdag sites
per village with known geospatial extents and comprising 700ha per village.

The protected and sealed gzhi bdag domains of the Yubeng Valley [Studley 2013]

2) Maintain cosmic harmony through ritualized reciprocity between the natural, social and spiritual
domain by:- auditing relations with the gzhi bdag (through dreams, visions, omens, trances or
theophanies), adopting appropriate behaviour in the gzhi bdag domain, honouring and thanking
the gzhi bdag on a regular basis, and engaging in ritual enquiry (divination) in order to make
restitution with or appease an angry gzhi bdag.

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Divination using a heated sheep's shoulder blade


tsekok, Amdo Province [O. Wendeker 2013]

3) Consider that currently parents and elders shoulder most of the responsibility for
intergenerational enculturation, given the persecution of most cultural specialists during the
Cultural Revolution

4) Protect gzhi bdag gnas yul as guardians (srung po) which consequently serve as refugia. This
finding is supported by biodiversity studies in the region which suggest significant differences based
on sanctity.

Avid hunter turned eco-spiritual guardian [Studley 2013]

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5) Believe that the preservation of gzhi bdag sites and their biodiversity is contingent upon the
protection of indigenous culture and its intergenerational transmission.

Yubengs defunct primary school closed in 2012 [CCTV]

6) Believe that the gzhi bdag cult and associated SNSs are being undermined by: - ex situ formal
education, conservation, sacred mountain tourism, the market economy, and the destruction of
their cultural universe".
Ensuring international recognition and protection
In the recent past the misguided conservation of Spiritscapes predicated on bio-centric or
anthropo-centric approaches have proved disastrous for the local minority people, as well as being
expensive to police (Army and Conservation staff). They have resulted, at Lugu Lake, in cultural loss,
poverty, arson and a loss of local interest in SNS protection and at Sanjiangyuan as a result of
forced re-settlement (aka ecological migration) in displacement, dislocation, loss of identity/
community, alcoholism and even suicide. Furthermore forced re-settlement inevitably will result in
the loss of pastoral culture, the desacralisation of Sacred Natural Sites and loss of their guardians
(srung po) and owners (gzhi bdag)
There is every reason to believe that if international conservation NGOs, with friends in high
places engage in green grabbing and global governance under the aegis of the New World
Order they will also negatively impact the well-being of Tibetan lay people, and their willingness to
protect SNSs.
Further field work is required to confirm the total area of spiritscapes on the Tibetan Plateau but
more importantly there is an urgent need to identify international organisations who can secure
protection for Tibetan spiritscapes predicated on paradigms that resonate with Tibetan
cosmovision, namely:- quantum wholeness, a cosmocentric worldview, and bio-cultural
regeneration
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