Cultural drivers of reforestation in tropical forest groves of the Western Ghats of India

Bhagwat, Shonil A.; Nogué, Sandra and Willis, Katherine J. (2014). Cultural drivers of reforestation in tropical forest groves of the Western Ghats of India. Forest Ecology and Management, 329 pp. 393–400.



Sacred forest groves in the Western Ghats of India are small fragments of tropical forest that have received protection due to religious beliefs and cultural practices. These forest fragments are an example of community-based conservation and they serve as refugia for many forest-dwelling species in otherwise highly anthropogenic tropical forest-agriculture landscapes of the Indian Western Ghats. Many of these sacred forest groves are considered ancient woodlands, but there is very little information on their origins. For instance: How old are these sacred groves? Are they relics of forest that was once continuous or are they patches of regenerated vegetation? How do changes in the surrounding landscape influence the vegetation in these groves? Based on palaeoecological reconstruction in two such sacred forest groves, we determined the age of these forest fragments. Both reconstructions indicate transition from non-forest open landscape to tree-covered landscape at these sites. These finding from two sacred groves challenge the common perception that sacred forest groves are remnants of once-continuous forest; instead, some sacred groves such as those studied might be regenerated forest patches that are approximately 400 years old. This further raises a number of questions about the drivers of reforestation in these groves. What were the social and cultural circumstances which led to the recovery of forest within these patches? How did land tenure influence forest recovery? What role did religious beliefs play in forest restoration? Using Wallace’s (1956) framework of ‘cultural revitalization’ and based on historical literature and palaeoecological analysis of the two sacred groves, this paper examines the drivers of reforestation in the Western Ghats of India. It suggests various social, ecological and economic drivers of such revitalization, recognizing strong linkages between the ‘social’ and the ‘ecological’ within the social–ecological system of sacred forest groves. This example of reforestation suggests that contemporary restoration of forests needs to operate at a landscape scale and look at restoration as a social–ecological intervention in forest management.

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