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A lesson in sustainability from India's sacred groves

How can ancient practices, from a bygone world, help us in conserving natural resources?

By Joanna Chustecki

Last year, the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) Living Planet Report informed us that since 1970, there has been a 60% reduction in vertebrate population sizes and an 83% reduction in the freshwater species index. In just under 50 years, the impact of human activity has been phenomenal. With the exception of Antarctica, 77% of land and 87% of the oceans have now been modified by human activities. The world in which we now live seems a far cry from an older, other world; a place where nature was revered and kept sacrosanct in patches known as sacred groves, where deities were said to live and care for the land. Written about in Sanskrit and Greek classical texts, these groves were widespread, even across Europe, but now exist only in Asia, Africa and parts of the Middle East.

In India, as far back as 5000 BC, the belief in natural resources as being inherently precious was an important part of the cultural ethos; so much so that regions of land, areas known for providing a certain resource to the community, were preserved as sacred. These groves became places of spiritual significance, where rituals were carried out, and protection was provided by the local villagers. The cultural significance of these groves is an important part of why these areas have been protected over the centuries.

There are also secular reasons for the conservation of these lands. Locals recognise the freshwater sources provided in these glades, and the ancient trees with their networks of roots provide rich and well-bound soil. Fruit trees such as cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera), walnut (Juglans regia), and Himalayan strawberry (Benthamidia capitate) thrive, and medicinal plants are gathered. These groves are highly biodiverse, with species such as the endangered snow leopard (Panthera uncia), and the vulnerable Sambar deer (Cervus unicolor) calling these places home, as well as many bird, butterfly and reptile species. The land provides vital natural resources to local farms and settlements, such as homes for pollinators, unpolluted water resources, leaf litter for fertiliser and precious timber.

But these sacred groves are not immune to the threat of the 21st Century; logging, grazing, construction, invasion by non-native species, tourism and industrialisation all pose a threat to the land and its biodiversity. To increase preservation efforts for these spaces, researchers have called for better documentation of current species living in these groves, as well as research into the numbers of people relying on the resources that they provide. There have been some success stories, such as Chilkigarh in West Bengal – now under the care of the Kanak Durga Temple Trust; a collective of local village members who have taken on the responsibility for conserving and caring for the land.

These groves are under threat, but care and knowledge has been crucial in keeping these precious spaces flourishing; knowledge such as how and when resources are used, and the time required by each species to grow and thrive. There are still many lessons to be learned from these ancient practices.

From Issue 18

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