Relics of reason

  • 30/01/1994

SUSTAINABLILITY has both its preachers and practitioners. Despite their intellectual self-righteousness, biodiversity conservation promoted by the first group is still largely informed by an economic valuation of a disappearing resource. Significantly, it is suspicious of many schemes of the people whose use of natural resources is imbued by a cultural valuation arising out of an understanding of generations.

All over the world people who directly derive artefacts of shelter, food, clothing, medicine as well as aesthetic inspiration from nature, use techniques that are often beyond contemporary comprehension. Sacred groves are one of these. Even the most well meaning condescendingly look upon them as signs of indigenous people being possessed of practices of biodiversity conservation. However, this tendency attaches instinct, rather than reason, to ethnic ways.

Sacred groves, like many other seemingly simple ways of rural people, epitomise their realisation that sustainability is a complex affair. Conservationists who have explored and documented sacred groves have been fascinated by the curtains of myth and superstition that shroud them. But, desperate to ascribe a function to this mumbo-jumbo, they prescribe it as a way to allow nature to flourish undisturbed. The error is understandable. Life in sacred groves is considered so sacrosanct that it cannot be used by humans living around them. However, restricted only to this impression, sacred groves begin to look like the official forest management systems currently in vogue.

But, sacred groves are different. Wherever they occur, the spread of sanctity is geographically limited by the people living around them, even though they grant their gods a universal reach. Through the fact that they are a limited part of the landscape, these groves affirm the accessibility of most of nature for human use. So sacred groves are part of a larger system of human-nature interactions. Genuine conservation is always a matter of choice, and so is the nurturing of biodiversity in accessible areas. If sacred groves are to be fully understood, they must be seen in combination with the rest of the natural resource use around them, for they point to fact that 'sustainability' is largely a complex but participatory business. In contrast, foresters and conservationists today, along with their simplistic worries about forest denudation, are perennially taken up with schemes to check cultivation, food gathering and hunting in the surroundings as well.

While the stringency of the terms of access to sacred groves must be taken note of, it is even more important to realise that this is largely through community consensus. Such codes demolish the logic of sermonisers of sustainability who never tire of arguing that external expertise and management is necessary, simply because the regulations required by sustainability lie outside the ability of rural people. Sacred groves clearly symbolise the fact that rural and forest-based people are capable of such regulation themselves. Even if such regulation has taken the form of magic or religion, it is a confirmation of the fact that people can be self-disciplined as far as their expectations from nature are concerned. The trick is to bring this human trait to the fore.

There is another lesson to be drawn. To use sacred groves as an assertion that people in India and other tropical countries have been aware, from very early times, that their forests are ecologically fragile is a statement of the obvious. The decline of forest cover has undoubtedly grave consequences. Denuded of tree cover, tropical lands move quickly towards infertility and erosion. Sacred groves uphold the notion that nature must be harnessed or used only within limits.

Unfortunately, there are numerous recent examples of defilement of sacred groves. Under pressure or greed, humans have always dared to take their appropriation of nature beyond the brink. Sacred groves point to the fact that even as humans know that extinction is forever, their own wisdom lacks permanence.

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