November 17, 2014

Sacred Forests as Bioreserves: Conserving Natural Resources & Protecting Livelihoods

Jes Walton, EcoAgriculture Partners Elise Ursin, EcoAgriculture Partners

The Siliserh Chhind Landscape encompasses 30 villages in Rajasthan, India and is characterized by Siliserh Lake and the flat-topped Aravalli hills, one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. Water scarcity and low rain falls (with the exception of monsoon season) leave much of this area somewhat infertile, and therefore, growing crops is not always a viable livelihood. The word chhind indicates that the landscape is used largely for grazing—and indeed rearing livestock is a popular form of agriculture in the area.

The role of sacred forests in resource management and conservation

The communities, livelihoods and ecosystems in the Siliserh Chhind Landscape are unique and rely heavily on local environmental resources that need innovative protection and management schemes. Orans—or sacred village forests—contribute to this complex landscape and play a vital role as micro-biodiversity reserves. These forests have historically supplied water resources to communities and their livestock through streams, springs, wells and other water harvesting structures. Orans continue to fulfill many important functions in the landscape; today, they are associated not only with water, but with mythological and religious traditions and place-based conservation as well. In this way, ecological activities are intertwined with communities’ spiritual cultures and the modern government of Rajasthan.

Man stands next to small rainwater harvesting pond in India. Photo: International Rivers on Flickr.

A man stands next to small rainwater harvesting pond in India. Photo: International Rivers on Flickr.

Local organization advocates for inclusive and community-led conservation

KRAPAVIS (Krishi Avam Paristhitiki Vikas Sansthan or the “Organization for the Development of Ecology and Agriculture/Livestock”) is a local organization that works to foster best practices, encourage sustainable livelihoods and protect orans in Rajasthan. The organization carries out its mission through three approaches: first, by encouraging communities to conserve natural resources and develop inclusive livelihoods; second, by fostering a national discourse around rural livelihood issues; and third, by advocating for political and legislative support for community control of natural resources.

The organization facilitates community actions, capacity development and institution building for conservation within sacred groves. Some notable examples of this work include building and repairing orantaalaabs” or water-harvesting structures, running village training programs and maintaining native seed banks and tree nurseries. Creating van samiti—committees that safeguard the plant and animal life in the orans—is one of KRAPAVIS’ key strategies to promoting long term conservation of these resources necessary for local livelihoods and spiritual activities. The van samiti create rules regarding village use of the forest and are vested with enforcement power. Special emphasis is put on training women and supporting their role as managers of natural resources both in these committees and beyond.

In the policy realm, KRAPAVIS advocates at the state and national level for recognition of orans, which have historically been at the mercy of national development projects. By engaging government officials, the organization ensured that Rajasthan’s Forest Policy 2010 included provisions to create a directory of orans. It also ensured legal provisions for village governments’ management of local forests and funding for conservation efforts. The organization also aids villages that are under the threat of forced relocation. Under the Forest Rights Act, communities that are at least 75 years old have a right to access nearby grazing land. KRAPAVIS collects evidence that these villages meet the 75 year requirement and dispute Forest Department relocation mandates so that communities may continue to graze and manage these multifunctional landscapes.

In the larger scheme of things, this kind of advocacy enables communities to maintain their rights to the land and continue protecting the orans as they have in the past. For several decades, the Indian government has given orans up for industrial projects (such as mining or dam construction), thus degrading these sacred places. Without a sense of ownership over the forests, local communities have not participated as heavily in conservation activities. KRAPAVIS, through its work, has once again encouraged people to be enthusiastic about protecting orans and engaging with nature.

KRAPAVIS aspires to scale-up their efforts using a systems approach. What are some ways orans might be connected for larger scale conservation and how might lessons learned in Rajasthan apply to other landscapes?

Jes Walton is a member of EcoAgriculture Partners’ communications team. She has a dual masters in International Affairs, Natural Resources and Sustainable Development from American University and the UN Mandated University for Peace and has worked closely with agrarian communities in West Africa. Elise Ursin was a communications intern at EcoAgriculture Partners in the summer of 2014. She is a graduate of the University of Connecticut with a passion for human rights and food justice. 

Comments are closed.