Reconnecting faith and forests

List of publications on faith and forests to supplement article “Next big idea in forest conservation: Reconnecting faith and forests


Entrance to a sacred forest grove in Kodagu, India

Bhagwat, Shonil A.; Nogué, Sandra and Willis, Katherine J. (2014). Cultural drivers of reforestation in tropical forest groves of the Western Ghats of India. Forest Ecology and Management (In press)

Bhagwat, Shonil A. (2012). Sacred groves and biodiversity conservation: a case study from the Western Ghats, India. In: Pungetti, Gloria; Oviedo, Gonzalo and Hooke, Della eds. Sacred Species and Sites: Advances in Biocultural Conservation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 322–334.

Bhagwat, Shonil A.; Dudley, Nigel and Harrop, Stuart R. (2011). Religious following in biodiversity hotspots: challenges and opportunities for conservation and development. Conservation Letters, 4(3) pp. 234–240.

Bhagwat, Shonil A.; Ormsby, Alison A. and Rutte, Claudia (2011). The role of religion in linking conservation and development: Challenges and opportunities. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 5(1) pp. 39–60.

Massey, Ashley; Bhagwat, Shonil A. and Porodong, Paul (2011). Beware the animals that dance: conservation as an unintended outcome of cultural practices. Society, Biology and Human Affairs, 76(2) pp. 1–10.

Dudley, Nigel; Bhagwat, Shonil; Higgins-Zogib, Liza; Lassen, Barbara; Verschuuren, Bas and Wild, Robert (2010). Conservation of biodiversity in sacred natural sites in Asia and Africa: a review of the scientific literature. In: Verschuuren, Bas; Wild, Robert; McNeely, Jeff and Oviedo, Gonzalo eds. Sacred Natural Sites: conserving nature and culture. London: Earthscan, pp. 19–32.

Ormsby, Alison A. and Bhagwat, Shonil A. (2010). Sacred forests of India: a strong tradition of community-based natural resource management. Environmental Conservation, 37(3) pp. 320–326.

Bhagwat, Shonil A. and Palmer, Martin (2009). Conservation: the world’s religions can help. Nature, 461(7260) p. 37.

Bhagwat, Shonil A. (2009). Ecosystem services and sacred natural sites: reconciling material and non-material values in nature conservation. Environmental Values, 18(4) pp. 417–427.

Bhagwat, S.A. (2007) Church forests in Ethiopia: the author replies. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 5(2): 66–67.

Bhagwat, Shonil A. and Rutte, Claudia (2006). Sacred groves: potential for biodiversity management. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 4(10) pp. 519–524.

Bhagwat, Shonil A.; Kushalappa, Cheppudira G.; Williams, Paul H. and Brown, Nick D. (2005). A landscape approach to biodiversity conservation of sacred groves in the Western Ghats of India. Conservation Biology, 19(6) pp. 1853–1862.

Brown, Nick; Bhagwat, Shonil and Watkinson, Sarah (2005). Macrofungal diversity in fragmented and disturbed forests of the Western Ghats of India. Journal of Applied Ecology, 43(1) pp. 11–17.

Bhagwat, Shonil A.; Kushalappa, Cheppudira G.; Williams, Paul A. and Brown, Nick D. (2005). The role of informal protected areas in maintaining biodiversity in the Western Ghats of India. Ecology and Society, 10(1), article no. 8.

Boraiah, K. T.; Vasudeva, R.; Bhagwat, Shonil A. and Kushalappa, C. G. (2003). Do informally managed sacred groves have higher richness and regeneration of medicinal plants than state-managed reserve forests? Current Science, 84(6) pp. 804–808.

Cultural traditions, environmental conservation and international development


Community mosaic, Edgbaston, Birmingham (Source: Jackie Nash Art)

This mosaic is an example of living with difference in a multicultural society and forms a good analogy for the co-existence of cultural traditions, environmental conservation and international development

Abstract of my International Development Seminar at Development Policy and Practice at the Open University on 30th April 2014

Cultural traditions, environmental conservation and international development: conflict, cooperation and coexistence

Local cultural traditions do not always sit easily with the global missions of environmental conservation and international development. Many conservation and development organisations see cultural traditions as an impediment to their projects. Cultural traditions are also often linked to faith groups with whom conservation and development organisations are reluctant to form partnerships. Yet, conservation and development both have certain ‘moral agendas’ just as many cultural traditions have their own moral frameworks. This possible overlap of moral agendas provides opportunities, but also challenges. Drawing on literatures in environmental conservation and international development, this talk will identify conflicts between cultural traditions and contemporary conservation and development, explore opportunities for cooperation, and discuss prospects of coexistence in a rapidly changing society. It will make use of examples from the literature on sacred forest conservation in agricultural landscape settings in the Global South.

Handout of PowerPoint slides: Bhagwat_DPP-seminar_2014-04-30

Resilience, recovery and restoration of tropical forests


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 ‐ Open Research Online link

Emergence of sacred forest groves


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

The risks and benefits of mapping indigenous lands


Sacred sites: A Pagan stone monument in the foreground and an Anglican church in the background at Avebury, United Kingdom.

Just over two weeks ago on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (9th August), Google caused a controversy by inviting indigenous peoples around the world to map their local geographic features on Google maps. In the United States of America, some welcomed this step while others decried it. So why did Google’s invitation divide opinion? In the United States, many tribal communities lack accurate maps for their land and therefore the National Congress of American Indians welcomed such mapping in the hope that the maps will be of huge help to the communities. Others thought that such mapping violates indigenous peoples’ spaces by divulging sensitive information and by exposing indigenous lands to exploitation. For example, Google Earth, which shows archived photos of most places around the world, has images of sites that are sacred to some indigenous peoples. Members of some tribes are uncomfortable with such public exposure to their sacred sites. This is a difficult dilemma. On the one hand, the reach of Google Maps and Google Street View is impressive, but on the other hand, such detailed coverage exposes indigenous lands to potential exploitation. So what are the risks and benefits to indigenous peoples of such mapping?

There certainly are some risks. Exposing the location of some categories of land can invite increased and perhaps unwanted attention to those sites. This may also expose economically valuable assets of indigenous peoples and make them vulnerable to potential exploitation – perhaps valuable minerals or rare plants with medicinal properties. The exposure to indigenous peoples’ lands on the Internet would also mean that anyone can find out information about their lands and can potentially misuse it. On the other hand, there are many benefits. Recognizing indigenous peoples’ lands publically can create awareness about the purpose and meaning that certain sites have for the indigenous communities. Mapping these sites and documenting them through photographs and videos might also help capture some of the unknown functions that these sites serve for indigenous peoples. Drawing boundaries on the map can help indigenous communities to have these sites acknowledged and perhaps even safeguarded in cases where their legal status is disputed. So there are both risks and benefits.

Indigenous communities are right in exercising the precautionary principle, but it is also worth pointing out success stories. The Soliga tribe in South India, for example, were able to establish their cultural presence by mapping their sacred sites and subsequently gaining access to land within the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary. On the other hand, the Dongriya Kondh of India’s Niyamgiri Hills are fighting a battle against open-cast aluminium mining on their sacred mountain. One wonders whether this long-drawn battle could have been resolved long ago if Niyamgiri Hills were publically mapped and acknowledged as a sacred site. With the global presence and reputation that Google has, could the power of their maps be leveraged to help indigenous peoples whose lands are contested in this way?

Here is the link to my presentation on “Mapping the Sacred: Towards ‘indigital’ geographic information networks” (Bhagwat_Protecting-the-Sacred) at a conference, Protecting the Sacred: Recognition of Sacred Sites of Indigenous Peoples for Sustaining Nature and Culture in Northern and Arctic Regions (11–13 September 2013) in Rovaniemi, Finland.