Emergence of sacred forests at Resilience 2014

Capture

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.

Advertisements

Hunting for conservation?

dehesa

Agro-silvo-pastoral system of Dehesa in southern Spain (Source: http://www.permaculturevoices.com)

On 9th February 2014 Prince William, second in line to the British throne, came under fire from conservationists.  Days before he was due to address a conference on illegal wildlife trade, he was spotted with his brother Harry and some other friends hunting wild boar in Spain.  The site of his crime would have looked somewhat similar to the landscape pictured above. On 12th February, the eve of the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade, Prince William made a speech calling an end to wildlife crime and the illegal killing and trafficking of the world’ most iconic species.  The media were quick to spot the contradiction and to criticise the Prince for the “unfortunate timing” of his hunting trip.  The critiques remarked that Prince William, who is also President of a charity called United for Wildlife, is not exactly walking the talk by hunting in Spain whilst asking others to stop illegal wildlife killing. Now that the euphoria of Prince William’s contradictory and controversial actions has died down, it might be worth ‘deconstructing’ his actions. In analysing this, I am perhaps taking somewhat controversial angle myself, but there we are! My argument has three strands: (1) Throughout history, there are numerous examples of conservationists who were also hunters; (2) Hunting certain species, particularly prolific breeders, helps keep their populations under control; (3) Hunting has been an integral part of some traditional landscape management systems.

Hunters turned conservationistsHunting and conservation don’t exactly sound like natural bedfellows, but strangely for much of the history of contemporary conservation movement, hunting and conservation have gone hand in hand.  Theodore Roosevelt, a 20th century American President often credited for the wilderness preservation movement in America, was also an avid big-game hunter.  Jim Corbett, the legendary British naturalist, or Salim Ali, the celebrated Indian ornithologist, were also hunters who later turned conservationists and influenced the formation of the Indian protected area network.  Prince William’s grandfather Prince Philip, who co-founded the WWF, now a leading international conservation organisation, also once came under criticism for his recreational hunting.  So the apparent contradiction between the prince’s wild boar hunting in Spain and conservation diplomacy in London three days later is not necessarily new and throughout history, many celebrities have nurtured their passion for wildlife conservation alongside their passion for recreational hunting.

Population control of prolific breeders: Whether or not recreational hunting is ethical is a matter of personal values and beliefs. Personally, I would’t go hunting but it is not for me to judge whether hunting is right or wrong. Also, the ‘wilderness preservation’ model of conservation purports a very subjective view of conservation, which does not always sit well with the provision of livelihoods or alleviation of poverty. There are arguments both for and against the wilderness preservation ideal and I don’t want to go into those here. But as far as hunting and conservation are concerned, I think, what is hunted matters far more than the act of hunting itself.  Rhinos and tigers have become endangered because of their historical overhunting and illegal trade of their body parts – a serious concern for their future survival – but wild boar in Spain is a different story all together. Wild boar (Sus scofra) is native across much of Northern and Central Europe and the Mediterranean region and is also widespread throughout the rest of the world.  During the European colonial period, wild boar was introduced to Americas and Australasia, where it quickly became invasive threatening the habitats of native wildlife.  Today it is a popular domestic animal in Europe bred in captivity for its meat, but some of these captive animals have escaped and established themselves in agricultural areas, plantation forests, rangelands and sometimes even in urban areas.  So wild boar is a pretty versatile species that can breed quickly and spread rapidly in places where it has escaped from captivity.  This adaptability and versatility of wild boar makes it one of the world’s 100 most invasive species.  In many parts of the world, wild boar digs up the ground with its sharp tusks damaging crops.  As an omnivore, wild boar can relish a varied diet including endangered reptiles, birds and invertebrates in some parts of the world.  So hunting wild boar can actually help, rather than hurt, nature conservation because it keeps the population of an invasive species under control. By doing that, it also helps protect many endangered species.

Hunting as part of traditional management: The 15,000-hectare Finca La Garganta estate near Seville, where Prince William and friends went hunting is a private estate in the remote rural countryside of southern Spain surrounded by small villages and their oak trees and olive groves.  This kind of traditional landscape or ‘Dehesa’ is a multifunctional agroforestry system where farmers keep trees and animals on farms.  Wild boar has been part of this traditional system and their population has to be kept under control by occasional and selective culling.  Without hunting, the wild boar can quickly overtake everything else on the farm and the ecology of this agroforestry system can collapse rapidly.  The upkeep of traditional landscapes such as these Dehesas requires careful management and hunting is considered integral part of it to balance economic activities and nature conservation.

Prince William came under fire for the “unfortunate timing” of his game hunting and conservation advocacy, but his act of hunting may not necessarily be bad for conservation.  Wild boar is one of 100 invasive species in the Global Invasive Species Database, 68 of which are mammals, so there is no shortage of species for the future British Monarch, and for that matter his descendants, to hunt!

Resilience, recovery and restoration of tropical forests

Picture1

Panoramic view of a Western Ghats landscape in Kodagu, Karnataka, India (Photo: Shonil Bhagwat)

Abstract of my talk at the Open University’s Department of Environment, Earth and Ecosystems on 4th February 2014:

Resilience, Recovery and Restoration: Dynamics of a cultural landscape over 7500 years of environmental change

How do long term environmental changes shape forest landscapes and what role do humans play in these landscape-wide changes? This talk presents new findings of tropical forest dynamics in a cultural landscape in the Western Ghats of India. This region has a long history of human presence and is well-known for its nature conservation traditions such as sacred forest groves. The region is believed to have been under agricultural for several millennia and the tradition of sacred grove conservation is also believed to be equally ancient. However, there is no precise data on the onset of settled agriculture and the origins of sacred forest groves. Based on palaeoenvironmental reconstruction, archaeological evidence and historical literature, this talk explores environmental and anthropogenic drivers of vegetation change. It portrays a complex picture of losses and gains of forest cover. It identifies ecological and cultural drivers of resilience, recovery and restoration of this tropical forest landscape. The talk concludes by offering new insights into tropical forest management and nature conservation in one of world’s biodiversity hotspots.

Handout of PowerPoint slides: Bhagwat_EEE-Seminar_2014-02-04

The talk is based on two research papers:

Bhagwat S.A. et al. (2012) Resilience of an ancient tropical forest landscape to 7500 years of environmental change Biological Conservation 153: 108–117.  Open Research Online link

Bhagwat S.A. et al. (2014) Cultural drivers of reforestation in tropical forest groves of the Western Ghats of India. Forest Ecology and Management, Available online 23 December 2013 ‐ http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foreco.2013.11.017. Open Research Online link

Emergence of sacred forest groves

A%20Cheniwada%20sacred%20grove

A sacred forest grove in Kodagu, Western Ghats of India.

How old are sacred forest groves? Why are sacred groves where they are? How did these sites come about? These questions have been bugging me ever since I stepped foot in the tropical forests of South India. Ecologists think that sacred forest groves are fragments of once-continuous forest. Anthropologists think that sacred forest groves are special places in the landscape that have cultural meaning. Local communities talk about sacred forests going back to several of their ancestral generations. But how old sacred forests really are has been an enigma for a long time. But now we have the answer!

Some colleagues and I have been working on the long-term ecology of sacred forest groves in the Indian Western Ghats. We were fortunate to find 1000-year old mud in continuous sequences of sediment from two sacred groves in Kodagu region of the Western Ghats mountains. For long-term ecologists, this kind of mud is black gold! Wet mud can preserve a variety of plant fossils and charcoal that give a good idea of what kind of trees lived all those years, decades, centuries or millennia ago. It also gives an idea of what  people did to the land back then. For example, if people set fire to land, that will show up in mud as charcoal particles. This kind of information is very useful to ‘reconstruct’ historical landscapes and to imagine how they might have looked like in the past.

We did this in two sacred forest groves and found that both these forest groves ’emerged’ around 400 years ago. Our academic paper on this is now available online. What is really interesting is the cultural, political and social factors that made these sacred forest groves emerge. We speculate in this paper that setting fire to land for shifting cultivation was common at these sites. But something suddenly changed around 400 years ago. We think that a change in political dynasty and the demarcation of land boundaries by the new rulers of Kodagu was an important turning point in the regeneration of these forest groves.

Also, there might have been a society-wide awareness of forest loss and its effects on groundwater because history says that around 400 year ago, at the peak of the Little Ice Age, there were severe water shortages, draughts and even famines in some parts of Asia. When the community became aware of the forest loss and its effects on ground water, they might have got together and declared some land as sacred. The newly emerged sacredness 400 years ago might have allowed the forest to come back. Today, sacred groves are often found around natural springs.

Of course, our data come only from two sacred groves, but they are sufficiently far apart from each other to think that this was a region-wide phenomenon. The emergence of forest at two separate locations at the same time is hardly a coincidence, so it is very likely that such changes happened also elsewhere in the landscape. We need more mud, more sediment sequences, to put a firm timeline on the emergence of sacred forest groves, but this study perhaps helps us imagine various historical possibilities of sacredness and its emergence.

Even though these sacred forest groves are only 400 years old, today they look remarkably ‘ancient’. This means that tropical forests can regenerate within relatively short periods of time. Four hundred years is about five human generations, but for long-lived trees, this is only a couple of generations. It is remarkable that tropical forest ecosystems can turn around and pretend as if nothing happened only in a couple of generations! There are probably scars of ‘inter-generational trauma’ of forest loss, but they are not obvious in these sacred forest groves. A divine intervention? May be!

Bhagwat SA, S Nogué, KJ Willis (2014) Cultural drivers of reforestation in tropical forest groves of the Western Ghats of India. Forest Ecology and Management, Available online 23 December 2013 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foreco.2013.11.017

Biocultural refugia

Capture

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

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.