Connecting Human Rights and Spirituality for Environmental Protection in Asia: Lessons from the Americas

Asian states such as China, India and Japan are known as heavy environmental polluters. Muhammad Buana argues they should follow the example set by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in integrating the interconnected concepts of human rights, spirituality and environment in their legal frameworks.

The 21st century faces global environmental challenges that affect the current state of humankind as well as the fate of future generations. Powerful Western states tend to address this issue from an anthropocentric perspective. By viewing all worldly entities as objects in relation to human benefit and superiority, anthropocentric narratives often cause heavy abuse of the environment. It is only recently that environmental protection has been incorporated into the domain of human rights protection and thus associated with the rights to life and health, among others.

Another way of promoting the connection between human rights and the environment is through associating the latter with the protection of indigenous community rights, as guaranteed in Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). As the environment is often an integral part of the lifestyle of indigenous populations, they are considered to be among the most affected by climate change. Given the link between the environment and their way of life, the participation of indigenous peoples is seen as vital and necessary to effectively combat climate change. The protection of the environment as formulated in the Inter-American human rights system provides a unique perspective on the protection of indigenous spirituality. Numerous cases have been brought before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) involving environmental harm to indigenous communities. In these cases, environment and spirituality are generally not seen as separate, autonomous entities. And understandably so, because to Native Americans, pollution does not just affect their material values and health but also their spiritual values associated with the environment. Many cases involving land belonging to indigenous peoples, the right to physical integrity, and the right to freedom of religion, emphasize the spiritual element of indigeneity and the environment. In addition, the supervisory bodies of the IACHR argue that the right to property protection can be utilized to benefit indigenous communities, and help in the realization of spiritual, ancestral, cultural and economic ties to the land.

Just like in the Americas, in Asia spirituality plays a crucial role in human life. It is closely associated with people’s culture, socio-economic position, landscape and environment. However, the problem in many parts of Asia is that this spirituality is not accommodated or recognized within the existing legal system (which in many cases were derived or adopted from former European colonial authorities) as relating to environmental protection.

In Japan, Shintoism regards certain natural elements as vessels for kami (nature gods). This belief nowadays has only symbolic meaning. Contradictory to the philosophy of Shinto, Japan has a bad record on environmental issues. Many other Asian countries face the same problems: big cities in India and China are notorious for the world’s highest levels of pollution. It seems as if the Western anthropocentric environmental perspective has been generally accepted as a common norm, even in “spiritual Asia”.

We can also draw on an example from Indonesia. On the island of Bali, environmental awareness based on spiritual culture has been actively promoted by the people of Geriana Kauh through a reviving Sanghyang Dedari dance. Sanghyang Dedari is a dance ritual to summon the paddy goddess, in the hopes that she will bless the village with good harvests. The dancers are village girls prepared by their elders to play the role of mediumship. The ritual is performed to signal the time of harvest. Through spirituality, this sacred dance connects local economic life, tradition and nature preservation.

In the same village, the failure of the Green Revolution in the 70s led to bad crops and unprecedented poverty, as it is highly dependent on traditional agriculture. The introduction of hybridized paddy seeds, modern technology and the use of pesticides damaged the soil health and altered traditional Balinese farming methods. Resurrecting the sacred art of honoring the local paddy goddess Sanghyang Dedari helps the village community to reconnect their life with nature which, as a result, heals the soil. After being neglected for 30 years, Sanghyang Dedari brought back the use of the traditional Balinese farming calendar as well as the use of a local paddy variety called Padi Masa as part of the rituals.

In conclusion, based on the approaches promoted by the IACHR, Asia can draw inspiration from the Americas on how to deal with environmental issues without neglecting socio-cultural and spiritual dimensions. Spirituality that has been preserved by indigenous communities as part of their identity can add more value to the fight against global environmental problems while preserving local beliefs and cultural life at the same time. When adopting legal regulations, traditional environmental spirituality must be taken into account. A spirituality-based approach to the environment offers new insights by viewing nature as a living organism that fits the Asian philosophy of life instead of just treating nature as a patient under the current anthropocentric legal regime.

Muhammad Buana is an alumnus of the Advanced Master in European and International Human Rights Law at Leiden University.

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