By S.Vishnu Vardhan
Sacred forest groves – regions deep in the forest’s belly conjuring images of witches and shamans with voodoo dolls praying to ancestors and spirits in the eerie glow of the full moon amidst the cacophony of cackling hyenas, howling wolves and the bleats of the goat awaiting its imminent slaughter. Regardless of the veracity of this fantastic, other-worldly scene commonly propagated through popular fiction, it is undeniably true that sacred groves are reservoirs of biodiversity (Chandrakanth et al., 2004; Verschuuren et al., 2010). Defined as “parcels of uncut forest vegetation in the name of certain deities or natural or ancestral spirits” (Chandrakanth et al., 2004)”, sacred groves are known to have a distribution of species sometimes similar to neighbouring protected forest areas (Bhagwat et al., 2005). They are known to house many rare, endemic and threatened species (Singh et al., 2011). Additionally, they consist of all types of natural features including mountains, rivers, lagoons, caves, springs and so much more (Verschuuren et al., 2010).
In an age of increasing population and resource consumption, the growing scarcity of land makes reservation of new areas an increasingly difficult and untenable form of conservation. Alternative forms of conservation that respect the rights of local people and encourage coexistence are sure to rise in prominence. Sacred groves are common in many parts of Africa and Asia, but studies in the broader geography are incomplete. There are 100,000-150,000 sites in India alone. Tanzania has about 920 sites covering about 6000km2. Similar sites are found throughout Africa in Ethiopia, Kenya, Algeria, Morocco and in Japan and China (Verschuuren et al., 2010). This essay seeks to briefly outline the major threats facing such groves and possible ways forward.
Property rights related issues are a major threat facing sacred groves in countries like India (Chandrakanth et al., 2004). Since community owned sacred groves are owned by the state government, the villagers are unable to enforce the property boundary against encroachers. This, coupled with the laxity and ineffectiveness of the state government in enforcement encourage private planters and loggers to encroach upon sacred groves. Thus, devolving ownership of the land to communities would incentivise them to protect the groves since they would be the direct beneficiaries and have the highest stake in conserving the forest.
When sacred groves are located in state-owned forest reserves, there are occasional conflicts between national and local interests (Kolavalli, 1997). The locals perceive groves as a living resource with gods and spirits that can be used but must also be protected for future generations whereas the state treats forests as a resource that can either be harvested or conserved (Nagendra & Gokhale, 2008). On the other hand, it is understandable that in a secular country, forest departments cannot give preferential access to forest resources to communities for religious purposes without alienating other groups. Hence, it is necessary for forest departments to be proactive and not get bogged down in the quagmire of bureaucracy. This could be done through finding creative solutions to incorporate sustenance of sacred groves in the existing legislative framework. For example, in the case of groves in Kerala where even removing a twig might be considered taboo, the forest department has given monetary incentives to owners to conserve their groves (Nambudiri, 2012).
Another major threat facing sacred sites are changing social norms and belief systems (Verschuuren et al., 2010). Today, the younger generations no longer enter the forests like their father and grandfathers (Niamir, 1990) due to multiple factors like population explosion, rural-urban migration, westernised lifestyles, and desire for economic development. These have slowly pushed traditions and cultures to the periphery (Niamir, 1990; Shepherd, 1991). Lack of government support by authorities who provide cutting licences to loggers and collect money from illegal loggers even when caretakers request help to stop the illegal cutting further worsen the situation (Sibanda, 1997). As a result, a pattern of loss of sacred sites is emerging in across Africa (Kenya, Tanzania) (Bagine, 1998; Madewaya et al., 2004), China (Huabin, 2003) and India (Verschuuren et al., 2010).
Considering the importance of sacred groves towards conservation across the world, ensuring their continuity would require governments to provide a proper legal foundation to safeguard the property and usage rights of the indigenous people as well as providing them with appropriate economic incentives. However, it is sacrosanct to remember that they have every right to pursue a modern lifestyle with the amenities and comforts enjoyed in today’s urban environments. Striking such a compromise between traditional sacred values, modern secular principles and working towards sustainable change would help sacred groves serve as a model for community-based, decentralized resource management.
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