NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sacred forests, which have mainly been protected by indigenous communities following traditional beliefs, are among the few remaining forest ecosystems that have been spared by loggers, but they are increasingly under threat, scientists warn.
“Evidence has shown that many people, including loggers, have for years respected, or have been afraid of going against some religious beliefs - and that has long been a conservation measure for several sacred forests around the world,” said Prasit Wangpakapattanawong, assistant professor at the forest restoration research unit of Thailand’s Chiang Mai University.
Most sacred forests are found in Asian countries, especially India, where they have for centuries been preserved and protected by adherents of Buddhism, a religion indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, Wangpakapattanawong said at the World Agroforestry Centre’s 2013 science week in Nairobi last month.
But the ever-growing appetite for land among global investors is a real risk for these previously safe havens, which are rich in biodiversity, the scientist told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
One example cited by Wangpakapattanawong is a 500-hectare section of India’s Aravali sacred forest that has been earmarked for development by the Haryana state government. It has developed a master plan that permits development activities in the Aravali forest in Gurgaon district through to 2031, a move that has been strongly protested by indigenous communities.
In Kenya, the Mrima sacred hill forest on the coastal strip of Kwale County is also under threat from miners who want to exploit valuable rare earths like niobium, which is used in steel production, electronics and medical devices. But the area’s Kaya elders - revered traditional religious leaders - oppose the plan and have vowed to curse anybody who encroaches on their land.
The Mrima sacred forest was gazetted as a protected area in 1961 because it is home to rare trees, birds and small wildlife.
A recent study by China’s Northeastern Forestry University said sacred forests are ecologically important because they provide habitats for rare endemic and endangered species of flora and fauna, and have a high conservation value despite their typically small areas.
The study estimated the carbon stored by trees in the Sem Mukhem sacred forest in Garhwal Himalaya in India’s Uttarakhand state, finding that the trees’ carbon density was nearly 775 megagrammes (metric tonnes) per hectare, which converts to 345.5 tonnes per acre of land in the forest.
According to the researchers, forests sequester 20 to 100 times more carbon per unit area than croplands, making them an important tool for reducing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere.
Wangpakapattanawong estimates that India has hundreds of sacred groves, although no study has been carried out to ascertain the number of such forests in India and other parts of the world.
“Countries should put in place relevant policies to discourage developers from encroaching on sacred forests for the benefit of the entire world,” said Meine Van Noordwijk, the principal scientist and chief science advisor at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).
In Kenya, beliefs among the Maasai community forbid anyone from cutting down a tree, for firewood or any other purpose. It is also a “cultural” offence to interfere with taproots or to remove the entire bark of a tree for herbal extraction, for example.
According to Maasai beliefs, only tree branches can be used for firewood, and fibrous roots for herbs. If the bark of a tree has medicinal value, only small amounts can be removed by creating a “V” shape in the bark. The wound is then sealed using wet soil.
Thanks to such practices, Kenya’s Loita Forest in Narok County has been conserved as a closed-canopy indigenous forest. It covers an area of 33,000 hectares and is rich in rare endemic species.
Similar beliefs and practices are observed by the Mijikenda community on Kenya’s coast, which has enabled the preservation of more than 2,000 hectares of the Kaya forest.
It is now home to more than half of all known tree species and shrubs that survive along the coast. But some of these are dying out due to changing climatic conditions, according to the Coastal Forest Conservation Unit, run by the National Museums of Kenya.
Nigel Crawhall of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee told Thomson Reuters Foundation that different African communities have incredible indigenous knowledge that they use in conserving forests and biodiversity, and this should be recognised at national and international levels.
Wangpakapattanawong observed that most sacred forests across the world are located on hills and mountains, making them important water towers for the people living around them – another reason why they are motivated to keep them in good condition.
“Many communities have deep indigenous knowledge that, if integrated with science, will help the world improve forest cover,” he said.
Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance journalist specialising in agriculture and environment reporting.
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