Innovation in Tropical Forest Conservation: Q&A with Dr. Shonil Bhagwat
Entrance to a sacred grove in Kodagu, India. Photo courtesy of Shonil Bhagwat.
“In Africa, you can come across Kaya forests of coastal Kenya, customary forests in Uganda, sacred forest groves in Benin, dragon forests in The Gambia or church forests in Ethiopia…You can also come across similar forest patches in South and Southeast Asia including numerous sacred groves in India well-known for their role in conservation of biological diversity,” Dr. Shonil Bhagwat told mongabay.com. “Culturally-protected forests are common everywhere in the tropics…but I think they have remained the ‘unsung heroes’ of tropical forest conservation thus far. We are fascinated by the vastness of the so-called ‘pristine’ tropical forest whilst overlooking forest fragments right in our backyards.”
Dr. Bhagwat is an environmental geographer interested in people’s cultural and spiritual values. He views ecosystems as ‘social-ecological systems’ and investigates them at various spatial and temporal scales: from landscapes to continents, from seasonal to millennial. He is interested in conditions that make these social-ecological systems adaptable and resilient in a rapidly changing world. And these self-proclaimed “undiciplinary” interests have led him to work on “culturally-protected forests, indigenous and community-conserved areas and sacred natural sites.”
“The connection between faith and forest is complex,” Bhagwat said. “It is not just the nature worship that is primary function of these forests, but they may have been maintained by our ancestors for the benefits that they provide to people. Today we call them ‘ecosystem services’ but in the past faith played an important role in ensuring that certain life support systems were maintained for the benefit of humanity.”
Shonil Bhagwat. Photo courtesy of Shonil Bhagwat.
He added that it is very possible to bridge a perceived gap between conservation scientists and much of the world’s faith community, simply by scientists learning how to speak to people of faith.
“After all, both faith and conservation have a moral outlook. If conservation movement is to make more friends, then faith groups can make valuable partners on the basis of a shared moral agenda,” Bhagwat said, noting that faith groups could become hugely-important allies in efforts to preserve forests and other environment. Faith groups, unlike both the political and economic arenas, focus on the long-term and have a rich history of survival.
“The conservation movement can benefit from [faith’s] intimate approach to connecting with people,” he explained. “Our political institutions or for that matter financial institutions are short-term, even volatile. Cultural and faith traditions on the other hand have proven themselves to be more durable and this durability can prove beneficial to the conservation of tropical forests into the distant future.”
Before joining The Open University as Lecturer in Geography in February 2013, Bhagwat directed an international and interdisciplinary masters’ program in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management at the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford, UK. He has held post-doctoral research appointments at the University of Oxford and at the Natural History Museum, London and completed his doctorate in Tropical Forest Diversity and Conservation at the University of Oxford in 2002. His work has taken him to the Western Ghats in South India as well as the tropical forests of Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and northeastern Australia.
“By reconnecting faith and forests, we can make connections between something that is ‘in-here’ (faith is important in people’s everyday lives) and something that is ‘out-there’ (people hear or read about tropical forests in the news). Once these connections are made in people’s minds, it can start to change their attitudes and gradually their behavior.”
An Interview with Dr. Shonil Bhagwat
Google Earth view of a church forest in Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Google Earth.
Mongabay: What is your background? How long have you worked in tropical forest conservation and in what geographies? What is your area of focus?
Shonil Bhagwat: My background is in tropical forest ecology. Ever since I stepped foot in tropical forests of the Western Ghats in South India as a teenager back in the early 1990s I have been interested in tropical forest conservation. I did fieldwork for my doctorate research in this part of the world in early 2000s and have continued to maintain a research interest in the region since. Apart from the Western Ghats in South India, my work has taken me to tropical forests of Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and I have also visited the tropical forest of northeastern Australia. I have been very fortunate to have had students working in many other parts of the world and through their eyes it feels like I have seen the impressive array of natural and cultural diversity across the tropics.
I am very interested in people’s cultural and spiritual values and this interest has led me to work on culturally-protected forests, indigenous and community-conserved areas and sacred natural sites. There are many such sites across the tropics, but I think they have remained the ‘unsung heroes’ of tropical forest conservation thus far. We are fascinated by the vastness of the so-called ‘pristine’ tropical forest whilst overlooking forest fragments right in our backyards. Many culturally-protected forests are just that—forest fragments surrounded by highly ‘humanised’ landscapes—fields, settlements, villages, towns and sometimes even cities. And this is the primary reason why they are important for nature conservation: they are found in placed where you would least expect to find them. This means they provide habitat to certain species that would have long gone if the land were cleared for agriculture or grazing. Culturally-protected forests provide ‘refugia’ for the variety of life that would have otherwise disappeared from our backyards long ago.
Culturally-protected forests are common everywhere in the tropics. In Africa, you can come across Kaya forests of coastal Kenya, customary forests in Uganda, sacred forest groves in Benin, dragon forests in The Gambia or church forests in Ethiopia. All of these are embedded within agricultural landscapes that are ‘lived-in’ by people for thousands of years. You can also come across similar forest patches in South and Southeast Asia including numerous sacred groves in India, which are well-known for their role in conservation of biological diversity. I am fascinated by these cultural traditions and think that we need to understand them better and to apply them to modern-day nature conservation.
My research has focused on studying these culturally-protected forests and this has naturally brought me in contact with a wide variety of disciplines: anthropology, conservation biology, ecology, forestry, geography, and international development. So over the years, my research has become increasingly ‘undisciplinary’ because the kinds of questions I am interested in answering span across the artificial disciplinary divisions we routinely make.
Mongabay: What role can sacred forests and religion in general play in conservation? What innovations are occurring at the interface of religion and conservation? How are you involved with this work?
A shrine in the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove in Nigeria. Photo by: Alex Mazzeto/Creative Commons 3.0.
Shonil Bhagwat: Faith plays a very important role in many places to make forests socially relevant. The faith groups that look after culturally-protected forests include a wide variety of religions, spiritualities and belief systems. Some of these forests are protected by some of the world’s mainstream religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism. But there are also animistic and indigenous faiths that have perhaps played a disproportionately large role in the conservation of these forests. Nature worship is central to many of these traditions and they have historically safeguarded forests as key sites for such worship. But the connection between faith and forest is complex. It is not just the nature worship that is primary function of these forests, but they may have been maintained by our ancestors for the benefits that they provide to people. Today we call them ‘ecosystem services’ but in the past faith played an important role in ensuring that certain life support systems were maintained for the benefit of humanity. These societies recognized the importance of nature and the rewards brought by its conservation.
Even today, many sacred forests are located on hill slopes or near fresh water sources because they continue to be important for the storage of groundwater. People often collect medicinal herbs or non-wood forest products from these forests. These forests maintain habitat for pollinators or pest control agents in agricultural landscapes, important for farming communities who depend on agriculture for their livelihood. I think faith continues to be a force in motivating many people to keep these forests even today so that they can continue to maintain our life support systems. So the tangible and intangible benefits from culturally-protected forests are perhaps tightly interwoven.
Conservationists are concerned about the loss of culturally-protected forests because the processes of modernization and globalization are changing the fabric of many traditional societies and with those changes the cultural traditions are following a downward trajectory. Many conservationists go so far as to suggest that faith, religion, and spirituality are no longer reliable instruments for conservation because of their society-wide decline. Instead, they call for a rational, scientific approach to conservation. I think part of the anxiety for joining faith with conservation originates in the uncomfortable relationship between conservationists and the people of faith. In general, there is widespread sentiment within the conservation community that faith and reason don’t go together and therefore such partnership is never going to work.
The picture at the grassroots is dramatically different, however. For lay people, faith plays an important role in their everyday lives—it is said that faith acts as a ‘moral compass’ to navigate the choppy waters in the ocean of life. The science of conservation on the other hand, with its sometimes impenetrable jargon, means very little to lay people. It is often said that nature conservation is a ‘crisis discipline’ and this means we are used to hearing the doom and gloom stories of failed conservation initiatives, but lay people often find those stories somewhat depressing. On the other hand, a message of conservation translated in their language means a lot more to them, and faith leaders do an excellent job of translating that message to their congregations. After all, both faith and conservation have a moral outlook. If conservation movement is to make more friends, then faith groups can make valuable partners on the basis of a shared moral agenda.
If fact, faith groups are already doing a lot of good work in helping nature conservation: Buddhist monks in Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Sri Lanka are conducting ‘tree ordination’ ceremonies wrapping saffron cloths around trees. These ordination ceremonies are publicly reinforcing the sacredness of trees and safeguarding them from illegal logging. Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon (SPNL), the key BirdLife International Partner in the country, has revived the Islamic tradition of nature conservation by declaring a number of areas as ‘Hima’/a>, conservation zone in the Islamic tradition. Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is playing a significant role in promoting the maintenance and upkeep of church forests around thousands of churches in the Ethiopian countryside. These are perhaps small, local examples but they add up to make a solid contribution to nature conservation in countries that are grappling to balance flourishing modernity and deeply-rooted tradition. On the backdrop of doom and gloom stories of failed conservation initiatives, examples like these bring a message of hope.
I like this message of hope. I like good news stories and one of my favorite ones comes from Northwestern India. In late-1990s, soon after I finished college, I had a fantastic opportunity to travel throughout India discovering cultural traditions in the country that support nature conservation. During these travels, I came across an organization called Seva Mandir in the state of Rajasthan in northwest India. This organization works for the development of local communities and acknowledges that nature conservation goes hand-in-hand with development and is essential for it. Working with these communities and the local forestry department, this organization has helped revive the tradition of saffron-water sprinkling for conservation. Saffron-water has deep cultural meaning in Hindu tradition. It is often used in temples during religious rituals for the sanctification of objects. Seva Mandir helped translate this tradition to the conservation of over-grazed and degraded commons. The act of saffron-water sprinkling had a dramatic effect and in the years that followed the degraded commons flourished with trees. I see this as an excellent example of nature conservation that works with local traditions rather than against them.
Google Earth view of the Mijikenda Kaya Forest, a sacred forest in coastal Kenya. Photo courtesy of Google Earth.
My recent work has looked at long-term history of sacred forest grove conservation in South India. Kodagu district of Karnataka state in South India has a large number and a high density of sacred forest groves. The recorded history of this region goes back to about 200 years and early British colonial reports make a mention of sacred forest groves. If you ask local people, they say that these groves have been around for several of their ancestral generations. If you ask conservation biologists, they think of these groves as fragments of tropical forest, pointing to the historical loss and destruction of forest. My recent research shows that rather than being fragments of forest, these sacred forest groves are in fact regenerated patches of forest. This means these forests almost ’emerged’ at some point during the history of landscape development in Kodagu.
Long-term and paleoecological data that some of my colleagues and I collected in these sacred groves show that around 500 years ago something changed and these forest sprung up. This emergence of sacred forest groves happened because of a complex combination of social and cultural change as well as environmental change. This is also a historical example of faith-led conservation with faith providing an overarching reason for the emergence of sacred forest groves. This research also suggests that given long enough time, tropical forests can spring back to life. It makes me feel hopeful about tropical forests and about cultural traditions, but this also means that we need to plan long-term. Political short-termism unfortunately does not bode well with long-term planning—we need institutions that are more durable to be in charge. Faith-based institutions are proven to have that capacity because they have been around for much longer than one or two terms in political office. If we can reconnect faith and forests, that will go a long way in tropical forest conservation into the distant future.
Mongabay: What do you see as the biggest development or developments over the past decade in tropical forest conservation?
Shonil Bhagwat: Over the last decade, I think tropical forests have been ‘hijacked’ by the discussion on climate change. Fixing atmospheric carbon in trees has become the primary societal motivation for keeping tropical forests intact. Our need for tropical forests is expressed in terms of money, the so-called natural capital, and markets are seen as the savior of this natural capital. It is true that this is the sort of language that multinational corporate giants understand and if we are to get them to do anything good for tropical forests, then we need to speak their language. But reducing tropical forests to carbon, money and markets doesn’t solve the problem of deforestation.
I am not an economist, but it is common knowledge that if something is in short supply, it becomes more valuable. If we leave tropical forests to markets alone, the scarcer they become, the more valuable they will be to markets. I think we need to tread carefully and find a more deep-rooted reason to save tropical forests—one that is sensitive to the cultural traditions of local inhabitants—and not leave them to the mercy of markets. We have seen the volatility of the global financial system in recent years and markets are closely tied to this system, so our dependence on markets might mean that the future of tropical forests is also equally volatile. This is the reason why we need to re-examine our increasing reliance on markets and also simultaneously look at more enduring solutions. Cultural and faith traditions provide both, a more deep-rooted reason for conservation of tropical forests and a more long-term thinking about their future.
Mongabay: What isn’t working in conservation but is still receiving unwarranted levels of support?
Long-term ecological work in Kodagu, India with Dr. Terry Brncic. Photo courtesy of Shonil Bhagwat.
Shonil Bhagwat: Conservationists are infatuated with corporations as is evident by the celebrated alliances between international conservation organizations and multinational corporations. There are obvious reasons for these partnerships. Corporations have the money required to support conservation, but at the same time they can also influence conservation in ways that may not always be in the interest of tropical forests. Many of these multinational corporations are deeply entrenched in global financial system and therefore one wonders how much difference they can really make to conserve tropical forests. If a scarcer resource is more valuable, then arguably the loss of tropical forests will increase their value and that is good for the ‘business model’ of these corporations, in the short term at least. Can we trust corporation to make a difference to the conservation of tropical forests? If conservationists are able to dictate the terms in corporate boardrooms, then they might be able to make a difference, but that is a far cry from who has the real power in boardrooms.
I think we need to look for more durable means for conservation of tropical forests. Perhaps we should be looking at faith groups more seriously instead. Some of these groups are equally wealthy if money is what conservation movement needs. But to my mind they can offer far more by way of mass support to the conservation movement. At present, we are overlooking, sometimes disregarding, and often completely ignoring faith traditions that have played important role in nature conservation historically and continue to do so even today. Reaching out to those traditions, harnessing and supporting them is probably something we can do if tropical forest conservation is to gain people’s support.
So how do we reconnect faith and forests? Faith groups have the credentials to influence their congregations. Over 4 billion people, nearly two thirds of the world’s population, proclaim some form of affiliation to faith. There are even more if you include indigenous faiths and other spiritualities and belief systems. Arguably, this presents a very diverse ‘stakeholder group’ for conservationists to engage with and one size may not fit all, but there are obvious benefits of such partnerships to the conservation movement. This is not to say that conservation organizations should turn to faith —there are advantages in remaining secular so as to remain neutral—but there is no reason why conservation organizations cannot work alongside multiple faith partners and reach out to a large cross-section of society. This is also not to say that conflicts of ideologies will not arise—religions in fact have a long history or intra- and inter-faith conflicts—but they have historically also risen above those conflicts time and again and have continued to maintain an important function in society. Conservationists also need to be agile in identifying changing trends in society. Faith itself does not keep still and faith groups are very ‘savvy’ in adapting to the changing trends—a reason why they have been very successful in keeping their finger on the pulse of society. The conservation movement can benefit from this intimate approach to connecting with people. Our political institutions or for that matter financial institutions are short-term, even volatile. Cultural and faith traditions on the other hand have proven themselves to be more durable and this durability can prove beneficial to the conservation of tropical forests into the distant future.
By reconnecting faith and forests, we can make connections between something that is ‘in-here’ (faith is important in people’s everyday lives) and something that is ‘out-there’ (people hear or read about tropical forests in the news). Once these connections are made in people’s minds, it can start to change their attitudes and gradually their behavior. Such a behavioral change can lay the foundation for specific conservation interventions such as technology assisted surveillance of tropical forests to prevent illegal hunting, logging and poaching; or playing games to understand people’s attitudes and behavior in order to prevent deforestation; or making nature conservation work for the alleviation of poverty . Conservation of tropical forests needs to turn into a mass movement and if it becomes a ‘front of the mind’ issue for a majority of people, that can make a real difference to the future of tropical forests.
To see Shonil Bhagwat’s full publications on faith and forests.
(07/08/2014) In Southern Italy over the weekend, Pope Francis reiterated his view that environmental destruction constituted a sin. Visiting the largely agricultural region of Molise, the Pope responded to an address by a local farmer attending university.
(05/28/2014) Pope Francis I, who named himself after the nature-loving Saint from Assisi, spoke about the need to safeguard creation during an audience at the Vatican last week.
(07/22/2013) An international cement company Lafarge, winner of a Green Initiative award, is considering quarrying a cave in Malaysia which is the sole home of a critically endangered species. The proposed operations also threaten a Buddhist monastery near the cave where monks are facing eviction. Kanthan cave in Peninsular Malaysia is located in a limestone hill, already extensively quarried for the production of cement by Lafarge. The cave, just as most karst caves in Southeast Asia, harbors a unique ecosystem. One of the rare endemic organisms is the Kanthan Cave trapdoor spider (Liphistius kanthan), which was just designated as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List.
(06/10/2013) Tibetan monks could be the key to safeguarding the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) from extinction, according to an innovative program by big cat NGO Panthera which is partnering with Buddhist monasteries deep in leopard territory. Listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List, snow leopard populations have dropped by a fifth in the last 16 years or so. Large, beautiful, and almost never-seen, snow leopards are the apex predators of the high plateaus and mountains of central Asia, but their survival like so many big predators is in jeopardy.
(03/28/2013) Many religious groups have taken on the role of environmental custodians, citing scriptures that urge living in harmony with plants and animals. Representatives of nine world religions pledged in 2009 to develop environmental programs. The Sikh religion’s contribution to that effort is called EcoSikh. With a global community 30 million strong, Sikhism is the world’s fifth largest religion. Sikhs trace their roots to Punjab. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Green Revolution — research and technology breakthroughs that dramatically increased agricultural yields worldwide — turned Punjab into “the breadbasket of India.” In the past 20 years, though, the intensive farming has eroded Punjab’s soil and water.
(03/20/2013) In his first homily as the new pope, Francis I spoke of the need to act as protectors both for the environment as well as for the poor and weak. With his focus on the environment the new pope echoes both his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, as well as the previous pope, Benedict XVI who championed environmental causes from climate change to biodiversity as crucial to the Catholic religion.
(03/11/2013) Buddhist leaders prayed for slaughtered African elephants in Bangkok, Thailand last week, reports WWF. During a special merit-making ceremony, often reserved for the recently deceased, Buddhist monks, abbots, and leaders prayed for the tens-of-thousands of elephants that have been killed for their ivory tusks. Bangkok is currently hosting an international meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), where the elephant crisis is being discussed.