Sacred natural forests are common in many inhabited areas in China, and have historically been protected and worshipped by several groups of people. There are two major kinds of sacred natural forests: those belonging to regional areas and those belonging to local areas. The first kind of sacred natural forest is held by people from a large area and by multiple cultural groups, and often encompasses areas of more than fifty hectares. Sacred natural forests like these have been incorporated into official natural reserves, and some are even open to tourists. Meanwhile, sacred natural forests that belong in the second group, exist as “sacred village forests.” These are maintained by a single cultural group from one, or occasionally a few, neighboring villages. Generally, this kind of sacred natural forest is smaller and is not divided into formal natural reserves, and is autonomously managed by the whole village. These are the very forests that have been harboring biodiversity and supporting traditional eco-agriculture effectively.
Sacred village forest in a tropical and multicultural region
Xishuangbanna (SW China) is a tropical area with thirteen native cultural groups and many sacred village forests. Several minorities like Dai, Hani and Bulang live in this region with sacred village forests; the sacredness is derived from multiple religious forms such as ancestor worship, nature worship or primitive religion and Hinayana Buddhism. Generally, a sacred village forest is a dense primordial mountain forest that is higher than the residential area and farmland so that it can “bless” the local livelihoods. Just as expected, the forests do benefit the villagers.
Ethnobiological and ecological studies show that natural forests of this kind harbor high biodiversity and function as patchy habitats for wildlife, considering that almost all other tropical natural forests, without either faith-based or legal protection, lost biodiversity rapidly in recent decades in Xishuangbanna. Moreover, these sacred village forests are an essential part of the local family farming ecosystems. The forests serve as sources of water, producers of organic fertilizer, barriers of climate disaster and sometimes as sites for wild collection of forest products.
Fate of sacred village forests is tightly tied to the future of traditional tropical eco-agriculture
In the 1960s and ‘70s, sacred village forests were announced as undesirable outcomes of superstition and underwent large deforestation, which also caused damage to the “sacred forest faith.” In recent decades, however, government officials, scientists, environmentalists and green campaigners realized the importance of these patchy natural forests and have begun to advocate for their conservation. Compared to the longterm outlook fostered by faith, villagers now tend to focus on short-term benefits. Some tropical forestlands have been opened up for use as plantations with high cash crop yields. As a result, traditional eco-agriculture has shrunken as sacred village forests began to disappear. While some governmental support, financial incentives and rural training programs exist in order to improve the situation, more attention must be paid to the loss of these important of sacred village forests.Dr. Yinxian Shi is a post-doctoral researcher at the Key Laboratory of Economic Plants and Biotechnology, Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Her areas of interest include ethnobotany, ethnoecology and traditional biological culture. Photo: Ethnoecological researchers, prefectural forestry officials, village cadres and venerable elders discuss strategies for sacred village forest protection and restoration, by Dr. Yinxian Shi.
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