Sacred groves are forest patches that communities have conserved because of their belief in a divine presence residing in them.

Forest patches and sacred groves hold the key for climate resilience for the country, caught between the yin and yang of flood and drought years. Their importance is increasing, as climate change will make extreme weather events and unreliable monsoons more frequent. But these forest patches are facing increasing pressures on their existence and need urgent conservation.

This year, the southwest monsoon started on June 7. According to the India Meteorological Department (IMD), in the nine weeks since its onset, the southwest monsoon has been normal over Tamil Nadu for seven weeks and deficient in the remaining two. In coastal Karnataka, it was normal over seven weeks and excess over one week. North interior Karnataka has had an all normal and some excess run. South interior Karnataka had deficient rains over seven weeks and was normal only for two. Kerala, too, weighed more towards the negative with five weeks recording deficient rainfall and only four being normal.

Thus, even though the worst may be over after the 2016-17 drought for the southern states, it is not as if a decisive report can be written yet. For most parts of Tamil Nadu, the southwest monsoon only provides additional rains, so the final word can be said only after the northeast monsoon season is over in the early months of 2018. Even within the normal report for rainfall over Tamil Nadu, there are pockets (like in and around Chennai city) that haven’t got enough rain to make up for the previous deficits.

In contrast, the Marathwada region where Latur symbolised the ultimate drought slightly more than a year ago, got normal rains over four weeks, and excess over another four. In the summer of 2016, eastern parts of Maharashtra and central Madhya Pradesh were facing a severe drought. The southwest monsoon of 2016 delivered liberal rainfall to eastern Maharashtra and central Madhya Pradesh. The drought was gone.

However, the monsoon neglected Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu in 2016. Months later, the northeast monsoon, which is the main source of water for substantial parts of Tamil Nadu, also played truant and did not deliver rain. The result – vast areas of these three southern states were facing drought during the summer of 2017.

As a series of stories in The News Minute Delve reveal, even during the peak of 2017 summer, the communities living close to sacred groves and forest patches in the Nilgiris, Kodagu, Kerala and Kolli Hills had some water flowing in their streams. The patches also continued to provide other ecosystem services strengthening the sustenance of the communities.

A sacred grove surrounded by agricultural fields in Kerala. Courtesy: S. Gopikrishna Warrier.

A tropical dry evergreen forest sacred grove in coastal Tamil Nadu. Courtesy: S. Gopikrishna Warrier.

The forest patches also provide resilience during the times of floods. They hold water and release it slowly and thereby increase in percolation into the aquifer. The adverse impact that Chennai city faced due to the floods of November-December 2015 could have been reduced if the health of the wetlands and also urban forest patches had been better.

The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that the frequency and the intensity of extreme weather events are going to increase in the coming decades due to changing climate. According to a study by the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, the trend is already visible. Except for cyclones, all the other kind of extreme weather events have increased in frequency from 1978.

Disaggregated models on climate change impacts are also telling a similar story. For instance, the Tamil Nadu State Action Plan on Climate Change (TNSAPCC) predicts that the state could have climate-related events of higher intensity in the coming years. It predicts that the average annual maximum temperature for Tamil Nadu could increase by 3.1°C by 2100 from the baseline of 1970-2000. Similarly, the average annual minimum temperature could increase by 3.5°C. Average annual rainfall, on the other hand, could reduce by up to 9%. The rainfall pattern could shift more towards northeast monsoon, which could bring more intense cyclones and floods.

Sacred groves are forest patches that communities have conserved because of their belief in a divine presence residing in them. The C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre (CPREEC), the organisation assigned by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) to study and list sacred groves in the country, states that there are still thousands of sacred groves existing across the country. They are in different stages of conservation or destruction though.

Himachal Pradesh has the highest number, with 5,000 sacred groves listed. Among the southern states, Karnataka has 1,531, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh together have 750, Kerala has 2,000, and Tamil Nadu 528.

Even though the listing gives a high number to Kerala, in reality most of them – especially in central and southern parts of the state – are very small, and ecologically unviable. The bigger ones, which are mostly in the northern districts, are facing different land use pressures.

Karnataka has a good number of ecologically viable groves. The hill district of Kodagu, for instance, has 1,214 sacred groves, which are legally deemed as protected forests. Together, the streams emanating from these groves contribute to the water flowing in the Kaveri river.

With a wet to dry rainfall profile across the breadth of the state, Tamil Nadu has an interesting mix of sacred groves. The groves in the shola-grassland ecosystem of the upper plateau of the Nilgiris also contribute to the flow of the Kaveri river through its tributaries Bhavani, Moyar and Kabini. In the fragmented hill range of the Eastern Ghats, the Kolli Hills have sacred groves of different vegetation types. Closer to the eastern coast, the sacred groves are mostly of the tropical dry evergreen forest type.

These sacred groves are the last bastions of biological diversity in many locations otherwise overtaken by land use change. For instance, in Kammadam Kavu in Kasaragod district, the largest sacred grove in Kerala, it is like stepping into a dense tropical evergreen forest with near total canopy cover and an equally dense undergrowth. Agricultural fields and plantations of coconut and rubber, however, surround the forest. If 54.7 acres of this forest still remains, it is because of the strong desire of the local community to conserve it. They believe that the forest is the home to their goddess.

It is this belief in the divine that is driving the local communities to protect their sacred groves. However, shortcuts are being found to overcome this belief in central and southern Kerala, where families are moving their snake groves out of their family compounds. Fortunately, in the recent years there is a trend to reverse this practice.

The idea of the divine also straddles a huge historical spectrum across sacred groves. While the deity resides in a dolmen (Stone Age burial sites constructed out of stones arranged in the form of a table) in some groves, in others it is in the form of menhirs (tall, monolithic, columnar stones).

Though traditionally most of the sacred groves have ritualistic ceremonies only once in a year, due to increasing Sanskritisation in the recent years some groves are opening for worship more regularly. More people entering with increase frequency means greater disturbance to the groves.

While some of the ecosystem services from these sacred groves, such as the perennial flow in the streams originating from them are tangible, there are many other services that are less visible. The forest floor increases percolation of rainwater, thereby improving the recharge in the nearby wells. The ambient is always cooler inside the groves, thereby reducing the heat in the vicinity during summer months.

The decaying litter increases organic fertilisation in the nearby fields. Bees find the groves attractive for building hives, and from here they fan out to the nearby fields providing pollination services. Medicinal plants in the groves strengthen local health traditions. With the groves providing refuge to wild animals, conserving them can reduce man-animal conflict.

The larger reserve forests, wildlife sanctuaries and national parks make conservation management possible over large tracts of forests. The lands on which these forests stand are legally protected.

Sacred groves, on the other hand, have diverse land holding and management profiles. Most of them exist because the local communities work for their conservation. Notwithstanding this plurality, a singular national objective to conserve the remaining sacred groves can help communities deal with future climate shocks and present-day weather uncertainties.

S. Gopikrishna Warrier is an environment journalist and blogger.

Views expressed are the author's own.

Main image: Even during the peak of summer in 2017, this stream inside a sacred grove had water flowing through it. Courtesy: S. Gopikrishna Warrier.