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

Article on invasive species in The Conversation

Invasive species: if we can’t beat them, maybe we should eat them

By Shonil Bhagwat, The Open University

What to do about invasive species, which are having a growing and generally detrimental effect on Europe’s environment and economies, is the subject of discussion in both the European Parliament and UK Parliament this week.

Invasive alien species are animals and plants introduced accidentally (or deliberately) into an environment where they are not normally found. Although estimates indicate that there are some 12,000 alien species in Europe, only 10-15% have become invasive, that is, have become damaging and of concern. However, just these 10-15% cost Europe €12 billion a year. So while the European Union has put in place its 2020 biodiversity strategy, it has not yet managed to provide a comprehensive framework to address this threat to European biodiversity.

The EU legislation pending a vote has been under discussion since September 2013 and has steadily gathered support from various European bodies and committees. The case for new legislation is persuasive, and in all likelihood it will pass and become a new EU regulation, bringing with it legal obligations on member states to ban the import, keeping, sale, exchange and so on of specific species.

But foresters and horticulturists, whose professions depend on valuable exotic plant species, have raised concerns. After all, many “alien” species of plants have long been cultivated for timber or for ornamental purposes – too broad a ban and these will be drawn into it.

Some of the poorer member states have argued that the proposed measures for surveillance, monitoring and control of invasive alien species will put a heavy burden on their already over-stretched budgets. It’s estimated that this legislation will cost the EU €560,000 between 2015 and 2021 – small change compared to the cost the damage these species cause, but an extra cost nonetheless. But, most importantly, questions remain about the results: experience from around the world suggests that the large sums of money spent on control and eradication programmes have not yielded the promised results.

Lantana camera. Pretty – for a triffid.
Joaquim Alves Gaspar, CC BY-SA

No proven response, yet

Some colleagues and I carried out a historical analysis of the spread and management of Lantana camara, wild or red sage, one of world’s top 50 worst invasive species. We found that despite many different measures – mechanical removal, chemical poisoning, biological control – Lantana continued to spread throughout subtropical regions during the 19th and 20th centuries.

It was evident that countries spent large sums of money trying to control the plant. For example, in 1973 the cost of Lantana control in Queensland, Australia was estimated at A$1 million (US$800,000) per year. In South Africa, chemical poisoning cost an estimated 1.7 million rand (US$250,000) per year in 1999. Indian estimates in 2009 put control costs at 9,000 rupees per hectare (US$200) – reaching a total of US$2.6 billion to tackle the 13m hectares where it has spread in India, a sum greater than the GDP of the neighbouring Maldives islands.

Despite all this money spent in Australia, South Africa and India, the notorious weed has continued to spread. And unfortunately it is not the only invasive species that has proved unmanageable: hundreds or thousands of others have spread across the world, defying all attempts by countries to make their borders “biosecure”.

New approach required

To deal with alien and invasive species that have already made it through porous borders and have established themselves in their new homes, we need more creative approaches than throwing mechanical excavators, chemicals, and enormous amounts of money at the problem.

With the help of NGOs, some rural communities in India have started a cottage industry of making baskets and furniture from Lantana. Other radical solutions that have been proposed to control invasive species include eating them.

A Chicago restaurant owner sells Asian carp burgers at his specialist fish shop to help the problem of this giant fish infesting North America’s Great Lakes. Others making dinner out of invasive alien species include Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut, which has a special invasive species menu, through which they “return to the roots of sushi, meaning simply to use what we have available.” Crayfish Bob in London offers a variety of invasive crayfish dishes, providing “quality food for a better environment”.

So the new EU legislation is a precautionary measure to prevent the ecological, economic and social costs that invasive species might in future impose. This will try to ensure Europe is more biosecure through a variety of control measures at borders, tackling those species that have made it through, and efforts to eradicate those that have become a nuisance.

But the costly failures elsewhere in controlling and managing invasive species makes one wonder whether we should find more creative ways of dealing with the problem: local economies based on harvesting invasive species, or recreational hunting, fishing or foraging as a part of nature tourism, perhaps. In any case, a new approach is needed.

The Conversation

Shonil Bhagwat has received funding from Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation programme of the Natural Environment Research Council, Economic and Social Research Council and Department for International Development, UK.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Hunting for conservation?

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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

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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.