Cultural and spiritual values: Laponian Area (Sweden)

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.


Laponian Area (Sweden)

Florence Revelin


Location and World Heritage designation

The Laponian Area World Heritage Site covers a territory of 9,400 km2 in northern Sweden. Listed as a mixed site on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996 (criteria (iii), (v), (vii), (viii) and (ix)), the Laponia Area brings together several protected areas and comprises four national parks and two nature reserves, offering a great variety of natural landscapes reputed of exceptional beauty. Two of the site's National Parks count among the first established in Sweden and Europe (1909) and other component protected areas were established in the early second half of the twentieth century.


This old nature protection system has guaranteed a good state of conservation of the whole area over the years. Both its remoteness and its vast wild landscapes spared from industrial development have led to the region being deeply associated with wilderness values, from both an ecological and a cultural perspective (Dälström, 2003; Green, 2009; Revelin, 2013).


These various protected landscapes can be divided into two dominant landscapes types: an eastern lowland of Archaean geological origin, which comprises marshlands, many lakes, and mixed woodlands; and a western mountainous landscape with spectacular mountain scenery. This higher part comprises a thinly-vegetated mountainous landscape with steep valleys and powerful rivers. The area contains more than 100 peaks higher than 1800m and about 100 glaciers (IUCN, 1996). Snow-covered mountains border on large alpine lake areas, contrasting with very active delta areas and marshlands. The vast mire complex of Sjaunja Nature Reserve - the largest in Europe outside Russia - is virtually impenetrable by human beings except during winter, allowing natural succession to continue unimpaired (IUCN, 1996).


Wilderness values

The major cultural value of Laponia's wilderness relates to its aesthetic dimension. Tourism and recreation are historically important in the area, starting around 150 years ago (Revelin, 2013). Nature and wilderness experience holds an important place in Scandinavian culture, as illustrated by the concept of "friluftsliv", valuing outdoor life and activities (Sandell & Sörlin, 2008). The dramatic and wild landscapes of the region became very reputed and attractive since the early 20th century, and especially important in national values. This is exemplified by the Swedish anthem, which celebrates the wild mountainous north: the "most beautiful land upon earth". Today, nature tourism and wilderness experience is a significant activity in the region. Five mountain stations and around 20 overnight cabins are situated inside or at the vicinity of the site. Some parts of the site have no tourist facilities at all, and require full autonomy. This is the case for Sarek National Park, especially valued for its inaccessibility and its full image of wilderness.

Free access to wilderness areas is highly valued culturally in the Swedish society (the so called ‘everyman's right' - Allemansrätt) and entering protected areas of Laponia is free of charge. Some emblematic landscapes also have important values for locals, such as those of the Skierfe mountain which is both an impressive landscape attracting tourists and a Saami sacred place.

Because of the ancient Swedish customary right of "allemansrätt" everyone is allowed to harvest common plants (if not protected) everywhere in Sweden, including in protected areas. Wild food plant and mushroom collection is permitted in the Laponia site, seasonally providing both the locals and visitors with some subsistence daily food. This provisioning service is hardly assessable economically, but is very important culturally, notably because the Scandinavians are deeply attached to this tradition of free access to nature, making wild nature areas especially valued (Berry, 2011; Sandell & Sörlin, 2008).

Using wild food resources, and more broadly living from and in this subarctic and hostile environment, are part of the fundaments of an important and complex system of traditional ecological knowledge of the Saami indigenous people living in the area (Roué, 2012). This knowledge covers various areas from medicinal uses of plants (Dubois & Lang, 2013), to moving around and surviving within an arctic wild environment thanks to complex knowledge of snow (Roturier & Roué, 2009). Wilderness areas also provide important pasture resources for reindeer herding, which is an essential cultural and economic activity for the Saami. Based on a transhumance system, herders use the whole diversity of local ecosystem throughout different seasons, moving from forest and mires in winter to mountain pastures in summer.