Cultural and spiritual values: Golden Mountains of Altai (Russian Federation)

Different cultures place values on natural features of the environment that have great meaning and importance for them and on which their survival as cultures depends. These values can be cultural but also spiritual. The later refer to the transcendent significance of nature that puts people in touch with a deeper reality greater than themselves, that gives meaning to their lives and motivates them to revere and care for the environment. In the case of protected areas that are or include sacred sites, these values are intimately related to the beliefs and practices of indigenous traditions and religions. Iconic natural features of many World Heritage sites, such as for example wilderness areas, also have spiritual significance for people as places of inspiration, symbols of identify, etc.

Key messages

- Cultural and spiritual values of natural sites shape people's relationships not only in social and in a religious life but also with the landscapes they inhabit

- The socio-cultural significance of sacred sites plays a pivotal role in the lives of local communities. Failing to recognise this socio-cultural and spiritual significance can exacerbate misunderstandings of ontological differences and jeopardize the management of these areas

- Cultural values of wilderness refer to the strong attachment to wild nature and the aesthetic dimensions of wild emblematic landscapes and the experience of nature.

- The unimpaired character of nature in those World Heritage sites that are wilderness areas is important both for local people and for the global community; however, these untouched ecosystems also benefit human well-being by providing other important services.


Golden Mountains of Altai (Russian Federation)

Bas Verschuuren

Location and World Heritage designation

The Altai mountains form the major mountain range in the south-western Siberia biogeographic region, covering a total area of 1,611,457 ha and boasting some 1,499 glaciers. Typical relief features of mountain peaks include the 4,605 m Mount Belukha, cirques and trough valleys with lake basins, morainal hills and ridges. They are also the source of some the greatest rivers such as the Ob which derives from the confluence of the Katun and Baya rivers and Lake Teletskoye which is the largest body of freshwater in south-western Siberia.

Golden Mountains of Altai have been inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1998 for their natural Outstanding Universal Value under criterion (x): "The Altai region represents an important and original centre of biodiversity of montane plant and animal species in northern Asia, a number of which are rare and endemic."(UNESCO, 2014c). This serial site comprises three component areas: Altaisky Zapovednik and its buffer zone around Lake Teletskoye; Katunsky Zapovednik and its buffer zone around Mount Belukha; and the Ukok Quiet Zone on the Ukok plateau (Klubnikin, Annett, Cherkasova et al., 2000). Two of the areas are located along the borders with China and Mongolia where they become part of the greater Altai - a 2,100 km long transboundary stretch between the Russian Federation, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan.

Cultural and spiritual values

In early history, the Altai was part of emerging and collapsing tribal unions, khanates, and the empires of the Scythians, Turks, Uigurs, Yenissey Kirgiz, Kidans, Mongols and Oitrats before it became part of the Russian Empire in the mid-18hundreds. The local populations of Altaisky, a Turkish-speaking people, have co-existed with nature for millennia and have a strong affinity with the natural environment as becomes evident through the expression of Altai worldview and wisdom named "Bilik" (Shodoev, 2012). Bilik is part of one of the world's oldest living shamanistic traditions in which natural objects (plants, stones, stars and planets) are believed to be living beings endowed with the same functional organs as human beings. Accordingly, Mount Uch Enmek is traditionally called the ‘navel' of the Earth. The Earth is believed to receive vital energy and knowledge through this navel in the same way as a foetus receives nourishment in the mother's womb (SNSI, 2013).

Cultural heritage is expressed in the many petroglyphs and archaeologically important burial mounts (Shodoev, 2012). In fact, many of the burial mounts are located within a declining zone of permafrost due to climate change. These frozen tombs are considered to contain cultural treasures unique to the world and have an elevated protection urgency (Tresilian, 2008). Most famous of all burial mounts is possibly that of the "Ice Maiden" that was excavated by scientists who despite much resistance of shaman, local people and even the wider public also removed the mummy and placed her in a museum in St. Petersburg (Dobson, 2010; Raygorodetsky, 2013).

Clearly, the cultural and spiritual values of the Altai are much more than a heritage of the past or services offered by a natural environment, they are central to the lives of many of the Altaians today. Here cultural and spiritual values, are deeply enshrined in the Altaian worldview that also shapes peoples relationships not only in social and in a religious life but also with the landscapes they inhabit (Posey, 1999).