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International Journal of Biodiversity Science, Ecosystem Services & Management, 2013 Vol. 9, No. 4, 339–346, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21513732.2013.835350 RESEARCH LETTER Safeguarding biodiversity and ecosystem services of sacred groves – experiences from northern Western Ghats a, b,c d d Malgorzata Blicharska *, Grzegorz Mikusinski ´ , Archana Godbole and Jayant Sarnaik Department of Aquatic Sciences and Assessment, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Box 7050, SE-750 07 Uppsala, Sweden; Department of Ecology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Grimsö Wildlife Research Station, SE-730 91 Riddarhyttan, Sweden; School for Forest Management, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Box 43, SE-739 21 Skinnskatteberg, Sweden; Applied Environmental Research Foundation, C-10, Natya Chitra Co-op Hsg. Soc. (Kalagram) Bhusari Colony, Kothrud, Pune 411052, Maharashtra, India In this paper, we introduce the relatively unknown system of sacred groves in northern Western Ghats to broader scientiﬁc community. The social–ecological systems of the sacred groves of this region are areas rich in biodiversity, provide key ecosystem services and are highly valued. Many sacred groves are an important source of water or medicinal resources, as well as regulating services, such as pollination. They are also places for socially important meetings and celebrations. However, initial investigations of sacred groves in the Konkan region of northern Western Ghats have revealed that these sites face many threats, such as for example, development and agriculture encroachment, increased resource use, cattle trampling and renovations of temples that lead to damage in the environment. This threatens the long-term maintenance of the groves’ biodiversity and services provided by them. We argue that the role of the sacred groves as biodiversity hotspots and providers of ecosystem services cannot be separated from the social context in which they exist. Thus, conservation work in such areas requires a step-wise approach including comprehensive recognition of the natural and social values, capacity building among local communities and design of locally suited incentives with participatory planning and implementation. Keywords: biodiversity; conservation; cultural values; ecosystem services; India; northern Western Ghats; sacred groves Introduction natural vegetation as the surrounding landscape is trans- formed due to economic development. These areas by The conservation of biodiversity has been on international default form an unrecognized ‘shadow’ conservation net- policy agendas for several decades and yet, biodiversity is work (Dudley et al. 2009). Sacred groves (sacred forests) still decreasing at an appalling pace. Increased effort of constitute an important type of such environments found the global community is necessary to reverse this trend on several continents (Bhagwat & Rutte 2006). (Pimm et al. 1995; Stokstad 2010). Traditionally, conserva- In India, sacred groves are important wilderness areas tion efforts have been focused on protected areas. However, and have been central to local communities’ understanding this approach is not sufﬁcient for the successful mainte- of conservation. These groves are signiﬁcant repositories nance of biodiversity because the areas of high biodiversity of regional biodiversity, serve as stepping stones for dis- are to a large extent located in landscapes where peo- persal through unsuitable habitat (Lal et al. 1990) and ple live and work (Polasky et al. 2005; Wilson et al. are known to retain viable populations of rare and endan- 2010). Additionally, in rural landscapes, biodiversity is gered species (Godbole 1996). Sacred groves, in contrast often dependent on traditional resource management prac- to nature reserves, are also an integral part of rural social tices (Berkes & Davidson-Hunt 2006; McNeely & Schroth systems. They are not just remnant forests but impor- 2006). Thus, a modern strategy for conservation should tant village institutions where traditional beliefs and social be a combination of approaches that ﬁrst account for the taboos have led to limited exploitation and access restric- entire landscapes, and second, view the landscape as a tions (Godbole & Sarnaik 2005). Because of this, many social–ecological system with all the relevant interactions sacred groves host rich biodiversity, particularly when between people and nature (Berkes & Turner 2006). This is compared to adjacent areas managed in other ways, or reﬂected by the concept of ecosystem services (MA 2005) even to protected forests (Bhagwat et al. 2005a). The that focuses on beneﬁts humans get from ecosystems. This groves are also sources of important ecosystem services has become a mainstream approach to conservation as it is for local communities, including provisioning (e.g. water, biodiversity that assures ﬂow of ecosystem services to the medicinal plants or ornamental resources) and regulating society (Cardinale et al. 2012; Maestre et al. 2012). (e.g. pollination or water puriﬁcation) services (Harsha Of particular importance for biodiversity are areas et al. 2002; Waghchaure et al. 2006; Sukumaran & Raj spared from intensive human use due to religious or cul- 2010). tural reasons. Often, these areas are the only remnants of *Corresponding author. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org © 2013 Taylor & Francis 340 M. Blicharska et al. There are an estimated 100,000–150,000 sacred groves biodiversity and cultural heritage is Western Ghats in India distributed over a broad span of ecological con- (Bhagwat et al. 2005b). This mountain chain is one of the ditions (Bhagwat & Rutte 2006). Most of the groves are 25 global biodiversity hotspots (Myers et al. 2000), and has relatively small but they are valuable for biodiversity due recently been given a status of World Heritage Site because to the frequency of occurrence and habitat quality for var- of both rich biodiversity and unique geological, cultural ious groups of organisms and their role as stepping stones and aesthetic values (UNESCO 2012). The Western Ghats for dispersers (Bhagwat et al. 2005b). For example, in the are over 1600 km long, cover about 140,000 km and host Kodagu district in Karnataka state, there is – on aver- more than 325 globally threatened species, as estimated by age – one sacred grove per 300 ha of land (Kushalappa UNESCO (2012). The sacred groves in the southern part of & Bhagwat 2001), ranging in size from a fraction of a the mountains have been studied extensively (e.g. Hegde hectare to a few tens of hectares (Bhagwat et al. 2005b). & Enters 2000; Johnsingh 2001; Bhagwat et al. 2005b; Large ancient trees are a particular feature of sacred groves; Arjunan et al. 2006; Karanth et al. 2006; Kushalappa & these structures are generally rare in managed landscapes Raghavendra 2012). Yet, very little knowledge exists on and simultaneously of great importance for maintenance of the northern counterparts that encompass the states of both biodiversity and cultural values (Lindenmayer et al. Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa (Figure 1) and differs sig- 2012; Blicharska & Mikusinski 2013). niﬁcantly from the southern part. The differences include both biophysical settings like climate, altitude, topogra- One region in India that is particularly interesting in terms of the role of sacred groves in conserving phy, available species and the cultural differences linked to Figure 1. Map of the northern Western Ghats area. International Journal of Biodiversity Science, Ecosystem Services & Management 341 various regional traditions, beliefs and customs. Moreover, lower altitude. Forests in the northern Western Ghats are only 1% of the northern Western Ghats is covered with mainly moist tropical forests and further categorized into legally protected areas (Godbole et al. 2010), unlike the southern tropical wet evergreen forests, southern tropical larger conserved proportion in the south. Due to recent semi-evergreen forests and moist deciduous forests (Puri economic development, urbanization and industrialization, 1983). Within these main subcategories, forest character- there is an increasing erosion of values that are vital for the istics vary widely in accordance with altitude, edaphic maintenance of the traditional institution of sacred groves factors, slope and other biophysical conditions. As men- in northern Western Ghats (Godbole & Sarnaik 2005). tioned above, only a very small fraction of northern The aim of this short paper is to introduce this important Western Ghats is under governmental protection in the region, its values and its problems to the wider scien- form of nature reserves and national parks. This area is tiﬁc community, and to provide an illustrative example prone to human development due to the lower altitude; of interactions between biodiversity conservation, ecosys- hence, the human density is also higher. Thus, relatively tem services, cultural heritage and ways to work with such little research is conducted here, mostly due to practical systems at the ground level. difﬁculties related to organizing research work in areas with ongoing economic activities of local communities (Godbole et al. 2011). Ultimately, there is little knowledge about the actual biodiversity of the whole area, with infor- The sacred groves of northern Western Ghats mation from few baseline studies, for example, from some The sacred groves are an integral part of the com- parts of the Maharashtra state (Godbole et al. 2011). Even plex social–ecological systems existing in the landscapes less is known about the biodiversity of the sacred groves, of northern Western Ghats. Therefore, their role as as these small areas have not been of particular interest for biodiversity hotspots and providers of ecosystem services either researchers or the authorities. cannot be separated from the social context in which these However, as many sacred groves represent native vege- objects exist and function (Godbole et al. 2008). tation in a natural or near-natural state, they often harbour rare and endemic species, including red-listed tree species like Saraca asoca and Hydnocarpus pentandra,aswell The ecological system as provide nesting and foraging habitats for key seed dis- persers, such as the Great Hornbill and the Malabar Pied The mountains of the Western Ghats receive high rain- fall averaging 2500 mm annually (Daniels & Vencatesan Hornbill (Anthracoceros coronatus). The proportion of 2008), which predominantly occurs during monsoon sea- woody species dispersing through zoochory is very high in son between the months of June–October. The West–East northern Western Ghats and this process seem to be nega- division of the mountains creates a large biogeographical tively affected by the human disturbance (Tadwalkar et al. variation of this region, ranging from coastal plains to hill 2012). ranges, with a variety of geomorphologic, climatic, hydro- Sacred Groves in the Maharashtra state of the northern logical and biotic features. The major vegetation types Western Ghats are not large, ranging in size from 0.1 to range from the high-altitude shola forest and savanna with 140 ha (Godbole et al. 2008), thus as individual patches annual rainfall up to 5000 mm to dry deciduous forest may not support viable populations. However, since every and scrub jungle on lower altitude and with much lower village in this region has at least one grove, the entire land- annual precipitation (only 300–600 mm in the latter case) scape consists of a network of forest fragments surrounded by forests in various stages of degradation that, as a whole, (Daniels & Vencatesan 2008). The unique geography and may provide a connected system of habitats. This is par- climate patterns of the Western Ghats produce a multitude ticularly important in terms of ongoing loss of dense and of different ecosystems that support an immense amount of relatively intact forest habitats in northern Western Ghats biodiversity including a large number of endemic species. (Kale et al. 2010). A study in southern Western Ghats sug- For example, out of nearly 650 tree species, 352 (54%) gested that there is interdependence between biodiversity are endemic. The corresponding numbers for amphibians, in sacred groves and the presence of other tree-covered reptiles and ﬁshes are 65%, 62% and 53%, respectively habitats in the landscape (Bhagwat et al. 2005b). One may (UNESCO 2012). Additionally, at least 229 plant, 31 mam- expect similar but more pronounced pattern in northern mal, 15 bird, 43 amphibian, 5 reptile and 1 ﬁsh species Western Ghats. Finally, the forests of northern Western that reside in these mountains are considered globally Ghats, in contrast to southern part of this mountain range, threatened, according to IUCN Red List (UNESCO 2012). have been recently identiﬁed as particularly vulnerable to Western Ghats is home to charismatic megafauna such the climate change (Gopalakrishnan et al. 2011). as the Tiger (Panthera tigris), Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus), Gaur (Bos gaurus), globally endangered species like Malabar Civet (Viverra civettina) or Black-chinned The social system Laughingthrush (Trochalopteron cachinnans), and a ﬂag- ship species, such as the Great Hornbill (Buceros bicornis). The biological diversity of the northern Western Ghats The northern part of Western Ghats considerably dif- is complemented by its cultural diversity. The region fers from its southern part, particularly with respect to is home to diverse communities, including nomadic 342 M. Blicharska et al. tribes, pastoralists, predominantly farming communities landscape. In the Sahyadri Konkan corridor of northern and coastal ﬁshermen community. Livelihoods of these Western Ghats, there are about 2500 sacred groves (Vartak communities directly depend on the biological diversity of & Gadgil 1972) that have been protected due to social tra- the region being a source of both provisioning and cultural ditions and taboos and maintained by local people through services. For example, two Ficus species (F. religiosa and traditional cultural practices over generations (Vartak & F. racemosa) are sacred trees and their leaves are essential Gadgil 1972; Chandran et al. 1998). These forests play a for many religious ceremonies at household level (Applied vital role in village resource management system and deci- Environmental Research Foundation (AERF), unpublished sion making. For example, in villages from Sangmeshwar data). block of Ratnagiri district, the village meetings take place There is a long and unique history of nature worship in sacred grove temples (Figure 3). The groves are also in the northern Western Ghats region related to the sacred used as gathering places during festivals like Ganesh and groves – patches of forests that are often demarcated and Holi (Godbole et al. 2010). protected in the name of a local deity (Figure 2). These The positive perception of natural areas by local people forest fragments are probably the only forest habitats that is a key to successful conservation. Usually, local com- have not been intensively managed that remain in the munities value functions of natural areas that are directly Figure 2. Each sacred grove is devoted to a particular local deity. Figure 3. Sacred grove forest (in the background) with a temple, where village meetings take place regularly. International Journal of Biodiversity Science, Ecosystem Services & Management 343 related to their livelihoods in terms of both concrete eco- watershed forests and many of them include traditional nomic beneﬁts and traditional cultural values (e.g. Salafsky water harvesting structures like wells. Many groves are & Wollenberg 2000; Badola et al. 2010, 2012), unlike part of catchments of small rivulets and reservoirs and conservationists who value ecological functions or rich are responsible for maintaining the moisture in the sur- biodiversity (e.g. Chan et al. 2007). In a study of sacred roundings due to shade of huge trees and other vegetation groves in the Ratnagiri district, Godbole et al. (2008) (Godbole & Sarnaik, personal observation). Sacred groves investigated several socio-economic parameters related to are habitats for many of tall rare trees like Tetrameles nud- sacred groves, including the level of awareness among the iﬂora and Salamalia malabarica that are host trees of bees local communities of the importance the groves had for and beehives and thus potentially may provide pollination maintenance of biodiversity. They concluded that many of services. Furthermore, the groves preserve valuable medic- the local people were not aware of the ecological func- inal endemic trees like Terminalia chebula, T. bellirica tions of these areas and the value of their biodiversity for and Saraca asoka, maintain potential genetic diversity of the provision of important ecosystem services, particularly many rare species and provide habitat to ﬂagship species the ones that may be important at levels higher than local. like the Great Hornbill and Malabar Pied Hornbill, the On the other hand, the groves were important to many local latter endemic to Western Ghats. These are also habitats communities with regard to their cultural and provisioning for bats that probably play an important role in maintain- services (particularly water provision). ing the forest regeneration through seed dispersal (e.g. of Calophyllum inophyllum species) (AERF, unpublished data). Sacred groves are also of extreme value for the The value of sacred groves and present threats cultural and social services (Table 1). Unfortunately, the ongoing changes in India are lead- Rich biodiversity and a wide array of cultural practices ing towards increased degradation of the sacred groves in that take place in of the sacred groves suggest that these northern Western Ghats. They are threatened both by the areas may provide both concrete provisioning ecosystem actual economic development and the increased pressure services and less tangible cultural services to the local peo- to use natural resources and also by the social changes ple (Bhagwat 2009; Table 1). The variety of the services that occur in the Indian society (Chandrakanth et al. 2004; the groves may give, include, for example, water or medici- Ormsby & Bhagwat 2010; Nagaraja et al. 2011; Reddy nal provision, and religious, spiritual and aesthetic beneﬁts. et al. 2013). For example, in the Sindhudurg district about The groves in the northern Western Ghats are usually small Table 1. Overview of the ecosystem services provided by sacred groves (SG), including the size of each grove and the main threats to the groves in the Konkan region, northern Western Ghats, India, 2012 (focus region of AERF’s work). Name of the SG Size [ha] Main services Main threats Songhar 52 Traditional water harvesting system providing Agriculture encroachment; resource extraction Waghav water for the village of Waghav (water and ﬁre-wood); cattle passage and related trampling Chafavali 2.5 Medicinal resources from native species, such Exotic species plantations (Acacia as Hydnocarpuspentandra, Strychnus auriculiformis); livestock grazing; spread of nux-vomica or Salamalia malabarica, invasive species (e.g. Calycopteris ﬂoribanda, Terminalia belerica, Tetrameles nudiﬂora, Mucuna pruriense and Carissa congesta) Antiaris toxicaria, etc. Kudavale 84 Rich biodiversity of almost a pristine moist Tourism; cattle passage; resource extraction deciduous forest, representing natural (wood); development encroachment ecological processes Hivale 10 Water provision to local people and cattle; Livestock grazing (cattle); soil compaction; habitat for Great hornbill; cultural services resource extraction (wood and leaves); due to the existence of two temples that are ecological unawareness of local people used for different ceremonies Kulye 23 Part of the village watershed; old growth trees; Resource extraction (wood); development habitat of IUCN red list medicinal tree (roads); traditional practice of collective Saraca asok; nesting site of Great hornbill protection dwindling; livestock grazing (cattle) Livestock grazing (cattle); temple renovation Katavali 24 Medicinal trees like Antiaris toxicaria, nesting site of Great hornbill; only forest in the catchment of the village watershed; use of the temples for the ceremonies Talawade 5 Nesting sites of Malabar pied Hornbills; Development encroachment; temple renovation; food-providing species like Ficus agriculture encroachment benghalaensis; use of the temples for the ceremonies Tamane 9 Old growth trees of Terminalia bellerica; Livestock grazing (cattle); temple renovation; medicinal trees like Strychnus nux-vomica; resource extraction (wood) use of the temples for the ceremonies 344 M. Blicharska et al. 35% of the existing sacred groves was clear felled and focus group meetings) to be able to design practical replaced with exotic species plantations between 1986 and incentives schemes that would encourage pro-conservation 1990 (Godbole et al. 2010). Additionally, the local commu- activities adjusted and linked to the local people’s needs. nities would like to be part of the process of globalization For example, in some of the villages in Ratnagiri district, and are not interested in being responsible for conserva- when local people received solar lamps (concrete items tion if not offered substantial beneﬁts (Godbole & Sarnaik needed to improve their livelihoods), they agreed not to 2005; AERF, unpublished data). sell their forest land for companies planning to introduce Neither the groves’ ecological values nor the threats to plantations. After intensive work with local community, them have been systematically investigated yet in northern the actual planning and restoration work can be introduced. Western Ghats. Particularly visible, in the Konkan region, For example, in village Vashi, local community replanted for example, are the threats related to everyday livelihoods indigenous species plantation and put a stone fence around activities, such as cattle grazing or ﬁre-wood gathering sacred grove of 7.5 ha, after a long process of discussions (Table 1). The local communities seem to be increasingly and initial failures. appreciative of the country’s development, particularly in terms of economic gains from selling wood or transform- ing natural forests into plantations. Another common trend Conclusions in the sacred groves is renovations of the grove’s temples, Sacred groves of northern Western Ghats are important often a result of increasing afﬂuence of the local people. sources of ecosystem services crucial for the local commu- Unfortunately, the renovations are often conducted with- nities. They also provide valuable sites for the maintenance out considerations for the natural values of the groves, of many rare and endangered species and enhance the e.g. many old trees are being logged (Godbole & Sarnaik, green ecological networks in the landscape. These values personal observation). are presently threatened due to both the ongoing economic development and low interest for their fate from the ofﬁ- cial authorities. The absence of well-developed scientiﬁc knowledge base and of the interest of the scientiﬁc com- Conservation with communities munity augments the problem of low priority given to these AERF is a non-governmental organization that for the last areas by the Indian government. It is therefore urgent and 17 years worked in situ with local people and sacred groves important to conduct research on ecosystem service eval- in northern Western Ghats. The work of AERF has focused uation of these areas, as they can provide direct incentives on three districts of Maharashtra (Figure 1), i.e. Raigad, for local people to engage in conservation. Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg, in the Konkan region. AERF The approach currently applied in some parts of north- conducted research and used awareness generation and par- ern Western Ghats can be summarized in three distinct ticipatory eco restoration activities in the villages adjacent steps: (1) value recognition; (2) awareness generation to the sacred groves aimed to achieve long term protection and incentives design; and (3) participatory planning and of these social-cultural conservation spaces. implementation. However, there is a need to complement AERF approach has several distinct steps (Godbole this approach with a comprehensive recognition of differ- et al. 2008). First, the general investigation of the sacred ent beneﬁts provided by the sacred groves and scaling up groves situation is conducted to select groves that are most the results of such an investigation to the whole region of in need of conservation activities. Both ecological (e.g. the northern Western Ghats. species richness, tree population structure, canopy layers, presence of rare and threatened species, etc.) and social (e.g. social and cultural signiﬁcance of the grove, log- Acknowledgements ging signs, threats, etc.) criteria are considered. In the We would like to thank Kerry Nicholson for language editing and selected groves, awareness generation activities, such as the anonymous referees for their valuable comments. village meetings, small group meetings, sessions in local schools and stakeholders’ workshops are then conducted. The aim is to increase local understanding of conserva- References tion values the groves represent. Often, local people have Arjunan M, Holmes C, Puyravaud J-P, Davidar P. 2006. Do devel- different priorities than the conservationists, and thus, the opmental initiatives inﬂuence local attitudes toward conser- challenge of conservation is not only to simply make peo- vation? 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International Journal of Biodiversity Science, Ecosystem Services & Management – Taylor & Francis
Published: Dec 1, 2013
Keywords: biodiversity; conservation; cultural values; ecosystem services; India; northern Western Ghats; sacred groves
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