Only a small part of the geographical area of Punjab is forested. Nourished by the beliefs of the people in these small patches of forest are sacred groves – fragments of forest that, in addition to serving as places of community worship, are mini-ecosystems that are home to several native plants and animals.
These green pockets, often associated with a local deity, are the embodiment of the microclimates and cultures of the Punjab which place great importance on trees. Local legends and tales, which help prevent the erosion of biodiversity, abound in these assemblages home to bats, reptiles, birds, insects and microorganisms.
For example, while vann (Salvadora oleoides) is the main species of the sacred grove of Bhiana Sahib in the region of Malwa, it is the dhak or the flame of the forest (Butea monosperma) in the sacred grove of Dhaki Sahib.
Nestled in the foothills of the Western Himalayas in the state’s Pathankot district is Chatpat Bani – a forest which, according to local tradition, would have arisen overnight, hence the name “chatpat” or fast. Local communities refrain from using wood from this 30-acre forest. They believe they will be cursed.
However, experts and local communities have expressed concerns about these shrinking green assemblages opposed to agricultural expansion, overgrazing and the proliferation of monoculture plantations. Added to this unhindered human interference are emerging challenges such as those resulting from the spread of invasive species.
Belief and preservation
Environmentalist Balwinder Singh Lakhewali notes that in places where some sort of belief is tied to trees, they usually survive. “But in places where such beliefs don’t exist, people usually acquire land illegally, and encroachment becomes a problem.”
Brij Mohan Bhardwaj, environmentalist and tree expert, explains the problems posed by the hardy Prosopis juliflora, an invasive plant species in the Bhiani Sahib plot.
“Mature kikar pahadi tree (Prosopis juliflora) does not allow any shrub for grass to grow under it, ”Bhardwaj laments. “In four to five years, the pahadi kikar grows and reaches a height sufficient to cover a vann tree that has existed for 100 to 200 years. If this continues, in four to five years the pahadi kikar blanket will completely envelop the old vann, interfering with its growth and the understory under the vann species.
“In this particular grove which is mainly composed of vann, there are many places which are totally dominated by this invasive species,” Bhardwaj pointed out. “If this continues, the pahadi kikkar will soon kill this entire grove and its native trees.” It is the need of the hour to prevent this invasive plant from destroying this grove.
A temple priest attached to Bhiani Sahib points out that if the saplings of vann and other native trees do not survive the goat grazing, they give the pahadi kikar a wide berth. “No animal eats it,” the priest said. “They (pahadi kikar) thrive because they are not eaten by animals.”
Balwinder Singh Lakhewali calls for more financial support to strengthen documentation on biodiversity in sacred groves through peoples’ biodiversity registers.
A popular biodiversity register is a legal document containing a comprehensive account of local bio-resources as well as related traditional knowledge and practices of the area of jurisdiction concerned under the aegis of a biodiversity management committee. The creation of biodiversity management registers and committees is governed by the Biodiversity Act promulgated by India in 2002 pursuant to the Convention on Biological Diversity, to which it was a signatory.
The Punjab, to date, has 13,599 popular biodiversity registers according to information available on the website of the National Biodiversity Authority. The National Biodiversity Authority was created to deal with all matters relating to the implementation of the Law and Rules on Biological Diversity, 2004.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.