case study:

Recognizing millennia of cultural and spiritual heritage at the Majella National Park, Abruzzo, Italy

Photo above: The Hermitage of St Onofrio near Serromonacesca (photo: Fabrizio Frascaroli)

Fabrizio Frascaroli
Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Sciences, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland.
Department of Biological, Geological and Environmental Sciences, University of Bologna, Italy.

The Majella National Park in Abruzzo, Italy, is an important biodiversity refuge. A sacred mountain since time immemorial, the area is characterized by a layered cultural and spiritual heritage shaped by millennia of human-environment interaction. This is a complex legacy to conciliate with nature conservation, but the Majella NP seems to have succeed better than other Italian PAs facing similar challenges: it enjoys higher support from local populations while still fulfilling conservation goals. Integrating a plurality of cultural and spiritual values in Park management has arguably been key to this success. I identify three main actions, through which this has been achieved: (1) recognition that traditional activities are important heritage that can enhance biodiversity; (2) zoning based on cultural as well as environmental indicators; and (3) emphasizing historical continuity between cultures and beliefs in landscape interpretation. Despite some enduring limitations, the experience of the Majella NP is an important example for PAs that overlap with deep cultural heritages.

Cultural and spiritual significance of nature

The history of human presence in the Majella National Park (74,095 ha) is extremely layered. The area was already inhabited around 800,000 years ago. Its main landmark, the Majella Massif, has been regarded as a sacred mountain since time immemorial. The name likely derives from the italic goddess Maia. Perception of the mountain as sacred is still spread among local inhabitants.

Spiritual significance is also attributed to smaller features, especially grottos. Many grottos were used already in pre-Christian times as dwellings, burials, worship sites, and shelters for mobile pastoralism (transhumance). After Christianization, they have been revered as hermitical dwellings and sites of divine apparitions, especially of the Archangel Michael.

Although Christianity has been dominant for the last 1500 years, echo of previous traditions still reverberates in many rituals and beliefs focusing on natural elements (e.g., rock, water, snakes). Pastoralism also retains spiritual importance and is connected to the cult of St. Michael. Finally, spiritual values of nature have been celebrated in forms of eremitism and contemplative monasticism that became prominent in the area during the Middle Ages. Celestine V (born Pietro Angeleri said ‘da Morrone’, 1210ca.-1296), the pope who gave up the pontifical role to return to his hermitical life in Majella, is an emblematic figure remembered in local worships and sacred sites.

Ecology and biodiversity

The iconic Majella Massif has its highest point at 2,800m ASL. Limestone is predominant, dotted by countless caves, and both underground and surface waters. The massif consists of large plateaus, largely located above 2,000m, interrupted by deep valleys. The plateaus have been used as summer pastures for millennia. This has likely contributed to their remarkable plant diversity (nearly 30% of Italian flora is found within the Park). Wildlife includes some of the most important roe deer and wolf populations in the Italian Apennines. While the isolation of the area facilitates conservation, major threats derive from the disappearance of species-rich grasslands and agricultural landscapes due to discontinued traditional management. Speculative building in tourist areas also represents an impending problem.


The Park is an IUCN type II PA governed by a public authority that responds to the Ministry of the Environment. Park governance aims at transparently conciliating the interests of 39 municipalities and 6 ‘mountain districts’. Strategic planning is oriented by a consultation with local administrators (2002). Other major stakeholders include famers, herders, tourist developers, and dioceses, although there is no evident mechanism for systematically including them in Park governance. Important areas of the Park fall within ancient privileges of customary law (usi civici, comparable to the commons) that should grant land governance and management to consortia of local residents. This occasionally engenders ownership conflicts between local institutions and the Park Authority, and management conflicts between local uses (including animal grazing and forestry) and EU directives.


The Park Authority manages the PA in collaboration with the Forestry Service. Current management strategies are largely geared towards tourist promotion. The main management conflicts arise between traditional activities (mountain agriculture, animal husbandry) and wildlife repopulation. These may stem not only from material interests but even competing worldviews. Other tensions exist around what cultural heritage to valorize, and what meaning(s) to emphasize. Local people are especially proud of their traditions and products; clergymen are often critical of folk devotions and rather stress monasticism and religious art. Park staff occasionally consider cultural heritage a management issue that clashes with the priorities of nature conservation. Traditional land management techniques (e.g., pollarding, silvo-pastoralism), although supported in theory, remain scarcely incentivized in practice.

Lessons Learned

Based on a number of accounts, the Majella NP appears as one of Italian PAs enjoying broadest support from local populations. Acknowledging cultural/spiritual values of nature in Park management and interpretation has been key to this success. Original lessons learned/best practices include:

  1. Recognizing that traditional activities are not perturbations of the environment, but co-evolved heritage that can enhance biodiversity. Traditional productive practices are often embedded in the spiritual worldviews of local population. In current Park management, they are supported through marketing networks and a fairly reliable system of compensations for wildlife damages. Surviving ritual practices focusing on biodiversity are also encouraged, recognizing their role for community cohesion and heritage tourism.
  2. Zoning based on cultural, not only environmental considerations. The Park is divided in 4 zones with different management. In areas where meaningful interactions with the environment were never in place or have long disappeared, wilderness-inspired protection is implemented. However, in areas where meaningful human-environment interactions are present, priority is given to sustaining traditional uses (de facto as in IUCN type V PA). This compromise permits to accommodate different and even competing values of nature and conservation goals, and to respect the traditions that preceded institution of the PA.
  3. Emphasizing continuity between cultures and beliefs in landscape interpretation. The distinctive cultural elements of the Majella NP – pastoralism, hermitism, monasticism, pre-Christian worships, folk traditions – are strictly related, one having often paved the way to the others. In some cases, local productive activities encapsulate these relations. Underlining continuity between these histories allows to embrace multiple interpretations of a layered heritage, and not exclude previous or alternative meanings. This also favors more inclusive and democratic relations among stakeholders.

Although perfectible, the experience of the Majella NP shows ways to reconcile multiple meanings of a complex cultural heritage in the framework of nature conservation. Similarly, it showcases some benefits of integrating local cultural and spiritual values in PA management. In particular, including cultural and spiritual value in Park interpretation appears an effective means to recognize local people’s role in shaping and safeguarding the landscape and make them feel part of a PA’s mission rather than strangers. These lessons are especially valuable for areas where human interactions with the land have deep roots and retain importance.

Current limitations of the NP include:

  • Ownership and care-taking responsibilities of monuments and places of interest are fragmented, at times unclear, leading to inadequate daily management and maintenance of those sites;
  • Religious bodies and common property consortia do not have an official seat in governance mechanisms;
  • Narrative presentation of the territory can still be enriched and improved, also with the support of specific research.

Present efforts towards having the area recognized as a mixed property in the UNESCO WH List may offer good opportunities for institutional dialogue around these issues.

Many important resources about the area are available only in Italian. An earlier and insightful case study about the cultural and spiritual sites of the Majella National Park was prepared by Vita De Waal for the Delos Initiative.

Books and articles:
Agnoletti M (2014) Rural landscape, nature conservation and culture: some notes on research trends and management approaches from a (southern) European perspective. Landscape and Urban Planning 126:66–73.

De Waal V (2012) The Cultural and Spirital Sites of the Parco Nazionale Della Majella, Italy. Pages 111–123 in: J. M. Mallarach, T. Papayannis, R. Väisänen (eds.)The Diversity of Sacred Lands in Europe: Proceedings of the Third Workshop of the Delos Initiative, Inari/Aanaar. IUCN, Gland.

Frascaroli F (2013) Catholicism and conservation: the potential of sacred natural sites for biodiversity management in Central Italy. Human Ecology 41:587–601.

Frascaroli F (2016) Shepherds, rituals, and the sacred: a biocultural view of the non-modern ontologies of folk shrines and devotions in Central Italy. Worldviews 20:272–285.

Frascaroli F, Bhagwat S, Diemer M (2014) Healing animals, feeding souls: ethnobotanical values at sacred sites in Central Italy. Economic Botany 68:438–451.

Frascaroli F, Bhagwat S, Guarino R, Chiarucci A, Schmid B (2016) Shrines in Central Italy conserve plant diversity and large trees. Ambio 45:468–479.

Frascaroli F, Verschuuren B (2016) Linking biocultural diversity and sacred sites: evidence and recommendations in the European framework. Pages 389–417 in: M. Agnoletti, F. Emanueli (eds.) Biocultural Diversity in Europe. Springer International, Cham.

Marucci G (2003) L’Arcangelo. Bulzoni, Roma.

Marucci G (ed.) (2000) Il Viaggio Sacro. Culti Pellegrinali e Santuari in Abruzzo. Andromeda, Colledara.

Micati E (2007) Eremi d’Abruzzo: Guida ai Luoghi di Culto Rupestri. Carsa, Pescara.

Silone I (1968) L’Avventura d’un Povero Cristiano. Mondadori, Milano.