Sacred Groves of West Bengal: A Model of Community Forest Management
45 Pages Posted: 3 Mar 2014 Last revised: 14 Jan 2019
Date Written: August 2, 2007
Sacred groves (or SGs) are distinct patches of vegetation (ranging in size from a small cluster of a few trees to a large forest stand spanning several hundred acres) which are consecrated in the name of local deities or ancestral spirits. Removal of any living things from the SG is a taboo, although dead logs and leaves are sometimes removed from some SGs. This institution is perhaps the best example of indigenous traditional resource use practices promoting conservation of biodiversity.
In West Bengal, most SGs are found in the southwestern districts where the tribal populations are the largest, and where industrial development has not expanded enough to expunge indigenous cultural traditions. The indigenous cultural milieu in the region consists of a strong legacy of animistic institutions including SGs. The lack of industrial growth in the region seems to have facilitated the survival of such institutions. Furthermore, most of the forests in the region belong to the Protected Forest category, allowing villagers virtually free access to a wide range of non-timber forest products (NTFP). This relative freedom of the villagers in these districts to harvest and use NTFP seems to have indirectly allowed the local forest-based cultural traditions to persist, in which SGs occupy a significant space.
Protected over centuries, SGs are remnants of pristine forests in climax formation (Malhotra et al., 2001). However, our survey of SGs in West Bengal indicates that along with the indigenous flora, non-native trees like guava (Psidrius guajava), Acacia auriculiformes, Ervatamia divaricata and Polyalthia longifolia also occur in the SGs. This indicates that these trees are often planted in the SGs to replace dead trees in the stand, and therefore the biotic composition of SGs is not necessarily pristine, but is a result of continuous human intervention and management.
SGs are known to contain many rare and endemic flora. Our inventory of SGs in four randomly selected administrative blocks of three districts of West Bengal has recorded a total of 117 species of angiosperm trees, among which 15 species have become rare in the State forests of southwest Bengal (Table 1). Specimens of an unidentified species of liana and an unidentified tree of Bombycideae family have been recorded from two SGs in Bankura district. SGs also function as important refugia for many animals. At least four resident birds, including the large Indian parakeet, prefer the SGs over other habitats in West Medinipur district of West Bengal (Deb et al. 1997).
Conservation of biodiversity in SGs is a consequence of the sacred physical space of the SG, which is communally shared as commons, and used to observe important social ceremonies in indigenous societies. Several cultural festivals are performed in the SG, which also provide a meeting place on various occasions including social gatherings, marriage, after-death rituals, etc. (Deb and Malhotra 1997).
Keywords: Forest, Sacred groves, West Bengal, Resources, Biodiversity, Conservation, Flora
JEL Classification: Q23, Q28, Z10
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation