Save sacred groves to save our forests

In India, a lot many times, religious sentiments and values have been saving our forests, and in turn, our environment. Many communities have self-regulated and self-imposed rules regarding logging and hunting in particular areas. For instance, they earmark certain patches of land in the name of the local forest deity, where they do not permit any hunting or tree-cutting. The size of the patch may or may not be big but it is a great refuge for native biodiversity. And because it is a community-supported initiative, these tracts have been protected by the locals for generations because of which the flora and fauna of the area survives, and in some cases, thrives.

An estimate suggests that there are more than a lakh such sacred groves in the country, and have different names in different states, such as Devrai, Devban, Devbhumi, Gumpa etc. In Rajasthan, they are called Oran. A study by a conservation organisation, Kalpvrikash, estimates almost 1,100 different Orans to be in existence in Rajasthan whch altogether cover more than 1,000 km. In Jaisalmer, Bhadriya Oran is about 150 sq km big whereas Kundla’s Oran in Barmer district is 75 sq km.

It’s just not that sizes vary, the degree of sanctity too varies from one area to another. In the state itself there are Orans which are used as grazing land or gauchar and even dead twigs are picked by villagers for use, this indicates that the community has a more practical approach towards keeping unused lands viable instead of riding on pure sentiment.

In a time when land is scarcely available and there is competition of resources such sacred groves have very important role to play. Many a times, researches access such areas to find out the native flora and fauna of the region as this is the only possible area which has been undisturbed since generations. But of course, invasion of exotic species too has been a modern day threat to some areas.

With time, there has been a considerable change in the content of these Orans, mainly due to encroachment for building temples and religious places in this land and of development and urbanisation around them. Consequently, a holistic understanding of the present position, construction and purpose of the sacred grove is important for formulating strategies for their conservation.

Although these Orans are local community lands, the legal ownership lies with the state revenue department Today, co-management is an important method in preserving this rich landscape. There is need for emphasising, that if we need to preserve the biodiversity of the area, we need both intellectual drive and ethical drive. The traditional practise of protecting these Orans and having the local community as the custodians can provide an effective tool for ensuring conservation through community participation. It’s important to have a planned holistic approach with local commitment, extensive community awareness as well as supportive policies and laws.

(The writer is a conservation biologist at Tiger Watch, Ranthambore)

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