Biocultural refugia


A modern-day sacred natural site: Sancheti organic farm near Pune, India, on

Pune, the small town where I grew up, is now a bustling metropolis of 6 million people. In my visit to the city last week, I was stunned by the amount of new construction that has sprung up all the way to the hill fort of Sinhagad. Rumour has it that soon the Pune municipal corporation will designate some more land as “residential” meaning that small farms will be sold quickly and soon new construction will come up in their places. It is in the heartland of this proposed residential zone that some close family friends have started a small organic farm. Looking at the speed with which the concrete frontier is expanding, I wouldn’t be surprised if in 10 year’s time this farm is the only bit of greenery left at the foothills of Sinhagad.

The Sancheti farm experiments with local varieties of seasonal crops, vegetables and some fruits. It has been around only for a few years, but in that short time it has turned into a heaven for wild plants and animals as much as it is a “food island”. With expanding urban frontier such food islands will play an increasingly important role in keeping biodiversity in our backyards whilst also feeding us. Stephan Barthel of Stockholm Resilience Centre and his colleagues have recently put forward the idea of ‘bio-cultural refugia‘ – “places that not only shelter species, but also carry knowledge and experiences about practical management of biodiversity and ecosystem services”. The farm near Pune is a great example of such refugia.

But this place is also spiritual. First of all, it is a labour of love. The two farmer sisters and many of their friends and family have been devoted to this farm. They have also built a small cottage from natural materials and now live there as full-time farmers. Their dedication to such a way of life, when most of their peers have given in to the urban temptations of modern India, is remarkable. They have followed a spiritual path, turning their back on many of the creature comforts that we take for granted today. Incidentally, an old shrine of water goddess was recently found at the farm. This is right next to a large well that keeps water on the farm throughout the year making it available for crops even at the driest times of the year. To me, this place is not just an organic farm, it is a modern-day sacred site now complete with its own water goddess shrine!

Sacred natural sites come in all different shapes and sizes and one of my research interests is to map these spiritual places. The sites include spaces set within natural surroundings that are sacred to individuals, groups and communities for a variety of reasons. These sites are considered guardians of ‘biocultural diversity’, the diversity of nature and culture in all its manifestations. Although not a sacred natural site in conventional sense, to me the Sancheti farm no doubt counts as one among those.

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