The decline of sacred groves

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IN PLACES like Uttar Kannada, M D Subhash Chandran, a botanist from the Dr Baliga College of Arts and Sciences, Kumta, in Karnataka, claims that the ban on shifting cultivation was largely motivated by the need to release labour for the new plantations that were coming up in the area.

Research shows that new controls under colonial rule greatly disrupted tribal agricultural systems in the Uttar Kannada district in the Western Ghats based on kumri (shifting cultivation). Kumri was well-adapted to the local ecology and could circumvent problems of tropical agriculture like pest attacks through repeated burning. According to Chandran, "Kumri was carried out with great caution and according to a specific land use plan" which reflected a well-balanced use of grazing lands, arable fields, forests and water bodies. There were conservationist elements, too, in this plan as every village settlement had sizable sacred groves (kans). Trees were not allowed to be felled in these areas, but permission was usually given to gather its produce, whether fuelwood or medicinal plants.

The sacred groves also protected the watersheds and conserved local biodiversity. For instance, the banasampa (Dipterocarpus indicus) of the Western Ghats are preserved only in these kans.

The colonial bias against shifting cultivation led to its ban in many places. It was perceived as a "wasteful system". While low revenue from shifting cultivation was one of the major reasons for restricting shifting cultivation, release of labour for coffee, rubber and tea plantations that were coming up in the southern Western Ghats was the more pressing factor for the British.

Expectations of getting a higher value from the erstwhile shifting cultivation areas was another major consideration. After the ban on shifting cultivation, which took place in phases between 1840 and 1900, the regeneration of the evergreen forests was not appreciated by the colonial rulers. The growing stock was considered to be "worthless timber" and it was feared that the occasional teak sapling within the evergreen vegetation would be stifled by it. Since the climate in Uttar Kannada was not suitable for plantation crops like coffee or rubber, evergreen forests were clear-felled.

In addition, a large part of the forest was given to the adjacent spice gardens for collection of leaf manure. As a result of this and also because of reservation of forests, the local cultivators lost a large part of their commons and sacred groves. The British, meanwhile, took to hunting as a favourite sport and wiped off a great part of wildlife in the area.