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Sacred forests – conservation by tradition

Categorie(s): Ecology, Human history and the environment

In many regions around the world smaller or bigger forests have been preserved because the local people consider them sacred. They occur throughout the world and share many features, they are a kind of natural conservation area, often a forested hill where the gods are said to reside. All the plants and animals that inhabit the holy hill are seen as either companions of the gods or sacred living things in the gods’ gardens.

Sacred groves are specific forest areas seen as imbued with powers beyond those of humans; home to mighty spirits. They can be sites linked to specific events, sites surrounding temples, burial grounds or cemeteries housing the spirits of ancestors, etc.

Taboos and codes

Access to most sacred forests is restricted (by taboos, codes or custom) to particular activities and members of a community. Gathering, hunting, woodchopping and cultivation are usually strictly prohibited. However often limited collection of fallen wood, fruit from the forest floor, medicinal plant collection, honey collection is permitted.

Sacred groves have survived for many hundreds of years and today act as reservoirs of much local biodiversity. The forest structure is unique, they are representing the least disturbed ‘islands’ of old growth. They make a significant contribution to biodiversity conservation on a number of levels: they contribute to the conservation of threatened forest ecosystems and they protect a large number of endemic or relic plant species.

Sacred groves have served as important reservoirs of biodiversity, preserving unique species of plants, insects, and animals. Sacred and taboo associations attached to particular species of trees, forest groves, mountains, rivers, caves, and temple sites should therefore continue to play an important role in the protection of particular ecosystems by local people. Particular plant species are often used by traditional healers and priests who have a strong interest in the preservation of such sites and ecosystems.

Conservation of nature and natural resources has been an important part of traditional life, and preserved mainly in remote rural and indigenous communities in many parts of the world, mostly in Africa and Asia, but they also exist in Europe and the Americas.

These communities consider themselves connected with their biophysical environment in a web of spiritual relationship and consider specific plants, animals, but also rivers and mountains as their ancestors and protect them. The forefathers of these communities were fully aware of the importance and significance of natural resources and the necessity of their conservation for the sustenance of future generations. They lived in harmony with nature and thereby played an important role in conservation of biodiversity.

Sacred forests often have associated myths and taboos on the use of specific plants and hunting of certain species of animals within the area. These traditions can serve a conservation role because some of the sacred forest fragments represent the sole remaining forests and the last remaining locations with potential for conservation of flora and fauna. For example, church forests in Ethiopia protect some of the last remaining fragments of tropical African mountain forests, while sacred forests on the south-east coast of India are the only remnants of dry evergreen forest habitat .Although sacred forests are often small fragments, they may be the only remaining reservoirs of biological diversity outside protected areas.

Storehouses of biodiversity

Globally, conservation biologists are starting to take note of sacred forests as potential storehouses of biodiversity. For example, many threatened plants in Meghalaya (north-eastern India) are known to be confined to sacred forests which are remnants of climax vegetation. Yet these sites typically have no legal protection; they are managed and protected by local residents.

Sacred groves and forests are now seen as a valuable tool of biodiversity conservation. But people’s changing attitudes, erosion of traditional beliefs, and human impact have caused degradation of sacred groves over the years. Their conservation would not be possible without the active participation of the local people. Improving their living standards and giving benefits of conservation can help to achieve long-term conservation.

Examples of sacred groves in different countries:

Ethiopia

If you see a forest in Ethiopia, you know there is very likely a church in the middle“, says Alemayehu Wassie. Wassie, a forest ecologist, has spent the past decade on a mission: preserving, documenting and protecting the unique biodiversity in pockets of forest that surround Ethiopia’s orthodox churches.

These small but fertile oases — which number around 35,000 and are dotted across the country — are some of the last remaining scraps of the tall, lush natural forests that once covered Ethiopia, and which, along with their biodiversity, have all but disappeared.

Deforestation was particularly encouraged during the country’s period of communism, in 1974–91, when the government nationalized the land, including the large estates of the church, and distributed it to people who converted swathes to farmland. Just 5% of the country is now covered in forest, down from 45% in the early twentieth century.

Women on their way to the church in the forest

In the past few years, small international research programmes have started to document the depleted biodiversity. Wassie, who has long championed conservation work in the northern highlands of the 

country where he grew up, has forged an unusual collaboration with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church to try to save the forests.

With modest grants from the National Geographic Society in Washington DC, Wassie and colleagues used workshops to educate priests about their conservation work and its importance. They took slide projectors to villages and showed them Google Earth’s bird’s-eye views of their churches. The dots of green scattered across arid plains gave the priests a perspective shift, as they saw the vastness of the forest loss contrasted with the treasure they had helped to preserve.

The priests gave him limited permission to enter the forests and take samples. They have since organized various research activities to catalogue species of birds and insects in the forests, inviting international experts to help in identification.

Conservation walls

Wassie has now surveyed the vegetation in more than 40 church forests.

Another part of the project involves encouraging church communities to build protective stone walls around their woods to save them from damage. Despite taboos about disrupting the forests, local people sometimes allow their animals to enter and graze on the undergrowth and saplings, or hunt for food there themselves. They often gather wood from the forests’ edges and allow their ploughs to damage vegetation.

15 or so churches have now constructed walls. And some priests have become stewards of their forests and encouraged local people to help build conservation walls. Many now volunteer time to remove stones from fields for the construction of the walls, which is also good for crop yields.

Forest biodiversity is important for agriculture because many of the birds and insects that populate the church woods pollinate crops and control pests, says Wassie. “We don’t know how much diversity has been lost,” he says. “But it appears there is a very significant amount left — more than we expected.”

Some churches are also trying to extend their forests to invigorate their communities, a promising indicator for his conservation ambitions.

Sacred forests of India

Sacred forests represent an important long-held tradition of conserving specific land areas that have cultural and often religious significance. India, with its diversity of cultures and traditions, has over 100 000 sacred forests. Many of these groves are forest fragments in agricultural landscapes. In most cases, community members are at least aware of these fragments, if not actively involved in their protection and management.

Sacred forests have been protected for a variety of reasons, including for religious practices or ceremonies, as burial grounds and for their watershed value. These areas are known to provide ecosystem services, such as erosion control and maintenance of high water quality. India has the highest concentration of sacred forests in the world. Thousands of sacred groves have been reported from all over India, acting as reservoirs of rare fauna, and more often rare flora, amid rural and even urban settings. They are threatened by urbanization and over-exploitation.

Sacred forests across the world are conserved primarily for spiritual reasons. Harming the forest is forbidden by tradition and it is typically believed that any alteration of the forest, such as cutting wood for construction or firewood, hunting animals or other forms of resource extraction, will result in negative consequences to the person taking the resources.

Resource extraction from a sacred forest in India was perceived as a serious offence and ‘traditional people believed that the punishment for such crimes would be to be reborn as urchins for thousands of years’. At Mawphlang sacred grove in Meghalaya, several residents recalled events when outsiders tried to harvest trees from the sacred grove but then fell ill. Thus, belief in the negative consequences of actions that harm sacred groves serves as a method of maintaining the grove and keeping it intact and preserved.

In India sacred groves all over the country now do enjoy protection. In 2002 sacred groves got protection in Wildlife Protection Act. Some NGOs work with local villagers to protect such groves. Each grove is associated with a presiding deity. They have been traditionally maintained by local communities with hunting and logging strictly prohibited within them. Most of these sacred deities are associated with local Hindu gods, but sacred groves of Islamic and Buddhist origins are also known.

In modern times many of the sacred groves were cut down (in earlier times up to 30% of the land and water in India were fully protected as sacred sites) in the 1950’s people soon realized that they had fulfilled a number of ecosystem services, in particular as firebreaks. Several villages re-instituted protection of forest patches, no longer as abodes of spiritual beings, but as community based groves important to and protected by the local people.

Conservation value and biodiversity of sacred forests

As a result of the long-term conservation of forest patches by communities who consider them to be sacred, relict patches of once extensive forest have been preserved. Sacred forests have consistently been found to have higher species diversity than surrounding areas and, in some cases, even more than government-protected areas in similar regions. Sacred forests also contain a high diversity of medicinally important plants. In a study of five sacred groves in Kodagu found that 60% of the regenerating species (136 of 241 species) were medicinally important

Ecological theory states that patches of forest that are fragmented lose species and have low biodiversity, suggesting that they have limited value for biodiversity conservation. However, a network of patches is known to support higher biodiversity than a single patch alone. Furthermore, if the patches are connected by corridors they can potentially support even a higher number of species.

Many sacred forests in India have been studied, primarily their species richness, mainly plant species. They showed a great diversity in the sacred forests: in three of them 395 species, 14% of which were endemic. In general the species diversity is much higher than in disturbed forests.

Sacred groves in other traditions

Probably sacred groves existed in many more areas. In the Christian and Jewish tradition it is mentioned in the Bible (Old Testament): “Abraham planted a grove in Beersheba, and called there the name of God.” (Genesis 21:33). When Christianity spread in Europe the missionaries had the habit of cutting down sacred groves and trees. Boniface was murdered in Dokkum (754, Frisia, Netherlands) and became a Catholic saint. He cut down sacred oaks. When the gods did not punish him for doing it, people believed that his god was the right one, so they tell.

In rural areas in Europe and other regions we still can find trees that are held sacred by the local people. And in some places sacred forests.

Estonia

Based on historical data, it is estimated that there are around 2500 sacred natural sites in Estonia, the largest of them up to 100 hectares. Rather exceptional among the developed countries, in Estonia both the sacred natural sites and indigenous customs connected to them are still in use. Therefore, the heritage that is connected to sacred natural sites has great importance to the national identity and environment of Estonians.

A national plan was prepared to protect them in 2008: “Sacred Natural Sites in Estonia: Study and Conservation 2008–2012” which includes about 550 hiis (sacred groves).

Sacred place in Estonia (crater of a meteorite)

Ghana

Sacred groves are also present in Ghana. One of Ghana’s most famous sacred groves, the Buoyem Sacred Grove is to be found in the Techiman Municipal District and many other in nearby districts. They provide a refuge for wildlife which has been exterminated in nearby areas, and one grove most notably houses 20,000 fruit bats in caves.

Entrance sacred place in Ghana

Japan

Sacred groves in Japan are typically associated with Shinto shrines, and are located all over Japan. They have ex

isted since ancient times and shrines are often built in the midst of preexisting groves. The Cryptomeria is venerated in Shinto practice, and considered sacred.

Sacred grove in Japan

 

United States of America

The Lakota and various other North American tribes consider particular forests or other natural landmarks sacred. This is one of the reasons that there has been recent dispute over the nullification of acknowledgment of Native American reservation land by the US government and a

n attempt to compensate Native Americans for the reacquisition of this sacred space.

Sacred place of native Americans

International importance 

The urgent need for the protection of sacred natural sites has been recognized by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The CBD in 2004 developed guidelines for the conduct of cultural, environmental and social impact assessments regarding proposed developments that may affect sacred sites and on lands and waters traditionally occupied or used by indigenous and local communities.

The adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is important for the protection and recognition of sacred natural sites at the national level. It states: “Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practice, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies; the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right to the use and control of their ceremonial objects; and the right to the repatriation of their human remains.” This also means that the biodiversity inside the sacred places will be protected.

Source: Nature January 2019, and diverse sites, like Scientific American and Wikipedia

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