Emergence of sacred forests at Resilience 2014

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A session on community forests, ecosystem services and resilience of smallholder agriculture at Resilience 2014

Handout of talk on emergence of sacred forests: Bhagwat_Resilience-2014_2014-05-06

Description of the session:

Reconnecting culture and agriculture: community forests, ecosystem services and resilience of smallholder agriculture

Do community forests in farming landscapes make smallholder agriculture more resilient? This session will examine the social-ecological system of community forests in the context of resilience of agriculture. This topic is important and urgent because it addresses the relevance of cultural institutions for food security, nutrition and wellbeing of some of the poorest people in the world.

Research thus far has suggested that community forests are ubiquitous in the rural landscapes in many developing countries and due to their cultural significance to local people many of them are considered sacred (Bhagwat and Rutte, 2006). In addition to their cultural role, sacred forests also provide a variety of ‘ecosystem services’. They are known to conserve biodiversity, preserve watersheds and store carbon alongside their cultural, religious or spiritual importance to local people (Bhagwat 2009). Furthermore, community forests provide services that are particularly beneficial for agriculture: habitat for pollinating insects and pest-control agents, and sources of green manure and non-timber forest products. These ecosystem services are particularly important for subsistence agriculture, which is increasingly under pressure to increase the productivity and variety of crops within small landholdings. Community forests are often the last remnants of native vegetation in many developing countries and are also under increasing pressure from land use change. In some parts of the world the area of community forests has reduced dramatically due to the expansion of agriculture. For example, in Ethiopian church forests are now the last remnants of afromontane tropical forest ecosystem (Bhagwat 2007).

If community forests are important for supporting smallholder subsistence agriculture and ensuring food security, nutrition and wellbeing of some of the poorest people in the world, then land use policies need to recognise their importance and the benefits of these forests for farmland (Bhagwat et al. 2008). This has further repercussions for international and national policies on food security. In Africa, for example, despite large-scale foreign land investments, 80% of people are still smallholder farmers. How can international and national policies support these farmers in a culturally-sensitive manner? In the face of rapid social-ecological transformation in developing countries, there is need to examine contemporary relevance for cultural institution for smallholder subsistence farming. This session will bring together researchers working on community forests in developing countries to collectively review the findings of research to date, and to discuss policy options for conservation of community forests. The session will examine these forests from the lens of resilience and social-ecological systems, and discuss their contemporary relevance for smallholder subsistence farming.

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