Reconnecting faith and forests

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

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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) http://oro.open.ac.uk/39316/.

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. http://oro.open.ac.uk/37001/

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. http://oro.open.ac.uk/37003/

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. http://oro.open.ac.uk/37007/

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. http://oro.open.ac.uk/36958/

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. http://oro.open.ac.uk/37011/

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. http://oro.open.ac.uk/37005/

Bhagwat, Shonil A. and Palmer, Martin (2009). Conservation: the world’s religions can help. Nature, 461(7260) p. 37. http://oro.open.ac.uk/37018/

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. http://oro.open.ac.uk/37017/

Bhagwat, S.A. (2007) Church forests in Ethiopia: the author replies. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 5(2): 66–67. http://oro.open.ac.uk/37024/

Bhagwat, Shonil A. and Rutte, Claudia (2006). Sacred groves: potential for biodiversity management. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 4(10) pp. 519–524. http://oro.open.ac.uk/37025/

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. http://oro.open.ac.uk/37029/

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. http://oro.open.ac.uk/37028/

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. http://oro.open.ac.uk/37030/

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. http://oro.open.ac.uk/37031/

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.

Cultural traditions, environmental conservation and international development

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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

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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

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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

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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.

The risks and benefits of mapping indigenous lands

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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.