ArticlePDF Available


Global forest loss is highest in the tropical region, an area with high biological biodiversity. As some of these forests are part of indigenous forest management, it is important to pay Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press 2 attention to such management, its values and practices for better conservation. This paper focuses on sacred freshwater swamp forests of the Western Ghats, India, and with it a faith-based approach to nature conservation Drawing on field work and focus groups, we present the rituals and rules that structure the governance of sacred swamps. We also discuss in depth the ecological, socio-cultural and economic valuation of these freshwater swamps by various local groups. In this way, we show overlaps and differences of valuation among different groups. In the context of a secular state with a diversity of faith groups and migration dynamics, we propose that faith-based governance of sacred swamps can benefit from the emphasis of faith-independent, "accessible" ecological, socio-cultural and economic values to foster a dialogue around sacred swamps and their place for livelihoods and nature conservation.
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
Narasimha Ramachandra Hegde
Ernst-Moritz-Arndt University
Rafael Andreas Ziegler
Ernst-Moritz-Arndt University
Hans Hendricus Joosten
Ernst-Moritz-Arndt University
Global forest loss is highest in the tropical region, an area with high biological biodiversity.
As some of these forests are part of indigenous forest management, it is important to pay
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
attention to such management, its values and practices for better conservation. This paper
focuses on sacred freshwater swamp forests of the Western Ghats, India, and with it a faith-
based approach to nature conservation
Drawing on field work and focus groups, we present the rituals and rules that structure the
governance of sacred swamps. We also discuss in depth the ecological, socio-cultural and
economic valuation of these freshwater swamps by various local groups. In this way, we
show overlaps and differences of valuation among different groups. In the context of a
secular state with a diversity of faith groups and migration dynamics, we propose that faith-
based governance of sacred swamps can benefit from the emphasis of faith-independent,
“accessible” ecological, socio-cultural and economic values to foster a dialogue around
sacred swamps and their place for livelihoods and nature conservation.
biodiversity, freshwater swamps, sacred swamp, values, Western Ghats
1. Introduction
Over the period 1990–2015, primary forest area has declined worldwide by 2.5% and in the
tropics, the zone with the highest biological biodiversity, by 10% (FAO 2015, Hansen et al.
2013; Morales et al. 2015). The remaining primary forest will likely degrade further (Wright,
2005) with severe consequences for the many species depending on it (Gibson et al. 2011,
2012). Some of this remaining forest is still under the control of indigenous people. It is
therefore important to understand the values and traditions governing indigenous
management and its contribution to securing biodiversity and sustainable human conduct
(Reynolds et al. 2017).
This paper focuses on the sacred swamps of the Western Ghats, India. Sacred swamps are
freshwater swamps dedicated to worship one or several deities through long-term
commitment and traditional laws and practices. Sacred swamps are a special type of sacred
groves (or sacred woods). Such swamps and groves are of special religious importance for a
culture, even though, as we will see, their importance is in no way limited to religious value
only. They have existed in many parts of the world, but often have been degraded or have
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
disappeared completely, for example in many parts of the Mediterranean (Hughes and
Chandran, 2000, for the history of such groves in the Western Ghats see Chandran et al.
There is much research on sacred groves (Bhagwat et al. 2012, 2014; Bhagwat and Rutte,
2006; Brown et al. 2006; Garg, 2013; Osuri et al. 2014), but almost no research has been
done on sacred swamps. The first systematic attempt to study the distinct biophysical features
of sacred swamps is our own prior research (Hegde et al. 2018). Sacred swamps appear to
have features that distinguish them from other freshwater swamps. In the Western Ghats, they
occur only in wet evergreen forests. They are located closer (average distance 100 m) to
roads, human settlements and commercial orchards than non-sacred swamps (average
distance 600 m, Hegde et al. 2018). The total number of plant species, genera and families,
the number of critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable species, and the density of
amphibians are higher, the basal area of trees and stem density larger, girth classes of trees
more evenly distributed, and bird, butterfly and odonata species diversity and richness
(slightly) higher in the sacred swamps compared to non-sacred swamps (Hegde et al.
forthcoming). Sacred swamps thus appear to have a higher biodiversity, and by implication a
higher nature conservation value.
Sacred swamps have a core zone - the depression part of the swamp - where strict rules apply,
and a buffer zone with more relaxed restrictions. This differentiation is reminiscent of
UNESCO biosphere reserves, which also have a no-go core zone and a development zone for
sustainable agriculture and tourism (Stoll-Kleemann and Kettner, 2016). However, whereas
biosphere reserves are a political construct, explicitly designed and regulated by the state for
nature conservation, sacred swamps are places of worship. The sociology of religion suggests
that rituals are central for the experience and keeping of sacred places and times (Durkheim
1915; Joas 2017).
The lack of scientific attention to sacred swamps also pertains to the features that define their
sacredness. Even beyond a focus on the sacred swamps of the Western Ghats, only one major
environmental philosopher appears to have written, in passing, about sacredness in relation to
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most
interminable and, to the citizen, most dismal, swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred
place, a sanctum sanctorum. There is the strength, the marrow, of Nature. (Thoreau,
Sacred in the sense of set apart and forbidden (Durkheim, 1915) implies a form of protection,
as the core zone example above suggests. Yet, valuing a sacred place and respecting associate
rules only makes direct sense and only has direct validity for the respective faith group. India
has a huge religious diversity and substantial inland migration. Migrants will not necessarily
respect or even know about local practices of religious respect, whereas youth may no longer
want to reproduce the practices of their elders. Further, state agencies have their own
missions, objectives and activities, which only rarely include the protection of sacred groves.
Thus, local groups living around sacred swamps can be expected to adhere to, and to be
exposed to, partly overlapping and partly conflicting values. We define “value” in this
context as the way in which an environment, i.e. its individuals, processes and places, matters
to those living from, in and with that environment (cf. O’Neill, Holland and Light, 2008). In
this paper we explore the cultural practices and the heterogeneous or plural values adhered to
sacred swamps, with special attention to values that are also open to those who do not belong
to the faith group of the sacred swamp and that therefore might be especially important to
ensure livelihood and nature conservation. In this context, we address the following
1. What values are associated with sacred swamps?
2. Who holds these values?
3. What are the implications for nature conservation in a secular society?
2. Methods
To address the research questions, we organized in 2016-2017 ten focus group discussions
(with in total 82 villagers) around ten sacred swamps in the districts of Uttara Kannada in the
central Western Ghats, India. Meetings took place in premises belonging to community
resource persons. Each group discussion took about 50 minutes. Where some stakeholders
could not participate in the group discussions, additional meetings and interviews with
individuals were organized.
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
As part of a participatory research, the focus group discussion and a scoring exercise were
organized following Boef and Thijssen (2007) and Chevalier and Buckles (2008).
Discussions were conducted in the regional language Kannada and recorded in a notebook.
All participants were familiar to the lead author, who has been involved in swamp restoration
and preservation in the area for over ten years. Participants were recorded not by personal
name but by age, gender and stakeholder category. They consented in the use of their quotes
for this research project. The scoring method and results were explained to them, but they did
not engage in writing or reviewing this paper.
The stakeholder categories were defined by the lead author based on his prior knowledge as a
community organizer in the Western Ghats. Each participant assigned her/himself to one (and
only one) category during the focus group meeting.
The following stakeholder categories were distinguished:
1. Believers: people living near the swamps who worship the swamp as sacred and
preserve the tradition.
2. Temple committee members: people (only men) who are responsible for the
management of local temples. The temple committee supports the sacred swamp
tradition. Some temple committee members are also believers.
3. Non-timber forest products (NTFP) collectors: people, the majority of which being
local residents with marginal land holding or landless, whose livelihood depends on
NTFP gathering and agriculture labour for others. Some NTFP collectors are also
4. Women: they produce agriculture and horticulture crops for livelihood cash income.
Some women are also NTFP collectors, including from the buffer zone of sacred
swamps. Many women are also believers. There are no women in the temple
5. Village Forest Committee (VFC) leaders: elected by the village. All villagers,
including women and migrants above the age of 18, are member of the VFC. The
committee is formed under the national Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate
Change to participate in the conservation and management of forests in the village in
cooperation with the state forest department. It is the only group exclusively working
on nature conservation with statutory recognition by the state. The committee meets
once a year in a general meeting where major decisions/approvals are taken, which
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
are then implemented by the elected (11) VFC leaders. Since the committee has the
mandate to co-manage the forests in association with the state forest department,
leaders are legally empowered to protect and manage the sacred swamps. Some of
VFC members are also believers.
6. Local administrators: members of the local governing institute called grama
panchayat, which is an elected body to implement the rural development activities in
the villages. The administration must spend at least 10 percent of its budget for local
biodiversity conservation and establish biodiversity management committees to
monitor the extraction and sale of natural resources and to collect revenue out of it.
This group has no direct relation to the sacred swamp, but members of the
administration are sometimes believers.
7. Migrants: people who have recently (not earlier than fifteen years ago) settled in the
villages. Many of them have settled on forestland and converted it to agriculture, and
some of them purchased land in the villages. Where they have a different tradition and
faith, they also have a different, direct relation to sacred swamps. For example, in the
village of Nilkund migrants do not follow the local faith and collect fuel wood, green
leaves and leaf litter from the (core of the) sacred swamp. In Bogrimakki village, local
believers and village forest committee members with help of the forest department
fenced the sacred swamp to obstruct access of migrants to the sacred swamps.
8. Juveniles: members of youth clubs aged below 21, who participate in development
activities in the village, work with various state departments and also participate in
social activities. Some club members are also believers, NTFP collectors, women, and
(if they are above the age of 18) village forest committee members.
Informed by de Groot et al (2002), Diaz et al. (2018) and prior conservation work of the lead
author, we identified major value categories (hydrological, religious, biodiversity,
recreational, utilitarian and social) and labelled them in such a way that participants could
understand and rate them. At the end of the focus group discussions, participants were asked
to rate the importance of each value category on a four-point scale, with four being the
highest and one the lowest score. The differences in scores between stakeholder groups were
analysed using the variance (ANOVA) statistical model in a completely randomized design
(Zar, 1999).
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
3. Results
The central feature of a sacred swamp is the presiding deity, represented by a stone or
sculpture. The most common deities are Chowdi, Jatka, Beerlu, Huli Devaru, Naga, Devi or
Vanadevate and Bhoota. Chowdi is a goddess of water; a pond or small lake is always
associated with Chowdi. Jatka and Beerlu are gods found where the sacred swamp borders
the scattered houses of the village as they are assumed to protect the villagers. Huli Devaru is
a tiger god, and Naga a serpentine god. According to local people living around the sacred
swamps, in former times tigers were more abundant, causing problems for humans, especially
by hunting cattle. Devi or Vanadevate is the mother goddess and, according to the locals, one
of the oldest gods in the sacred swamps. Usually a heap of earthen pots (according to local
people possibly the remnants of offerings to the deity in case of deadly diseases) is found in
front of the stone/sculpture representing the goddess. Bhoota is an evil spirit, normally found
at the border between the commercial orchard and the forest.
The worship of these deities includes a number of rules that must be respected. Entry to the
core area is allowed only during annual worship/ritual and hence strict rules are followed here
(Table 1). The priest and the people who clean the premise should have taken a bath and wear
washed cloths when entering the sacred swamp and performing the puja, a ritual prayer, in all
the rituals listed. Within the buffer zone, it is forbidden to cut trees, branches and twigs, pick
flowers, collect NTFPs, poles, leaves and dead and fallen wood, hunt, gather and fish, erect
any construction, spit, urinate and perform any activity that pollutes the water body.
Collection of NTFPs is restricted to the belief group. Compliance with these rules is observed
by the community and by the state forest department, who owns the land.
Table 1. near here
While rituals differ, we can see similarities in the worshipping and paying respect to a deity
and its place. About three times a year, people gather to perform the rituals and thereby
affirm the sacred status of the swamps.
The rituals extend to everyday life in the sense that the deity guards the worshippers and the
people offer prayers regularly, not just during the above-mentioned special days. For
instance, when friends or relatives visit the house of a believer pair and their baby starts
crying, coconut and puja will be offered near the swamp, i.e. near or in the buffer zone,
facing towards the deity. Similarly, if someone is ill, grazing cows do not come back to the
cattle-shed or a cobra appears in the premises, people worship the deity. These everyday
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
rituals and prayers are performed near the entry of the sacred swamp but outside of the core
We now discuss each value category, whereas Table 2 shows the results of the scoring
Table 2. near here
Stakeholder group provided different scoring to the values and the ANOVA test shows that
the scores differ significantly from the null hypothesis (no difference).
Hydrological values
Freshwater swamps are a perennial source of water used for irrigating commercial orchards
and paddy fields. The filtered water from the swamp is put to domestic use and esteemed for
its purity. Water flow through and from the swamp always remains steady: the brooks do not
overflow in the rainy season, nor fall dry in summer. The web structure of tree roots
facilitates groundwater recharge and prevents soil erosion.
The local people have observed cooler temperatures throughout the year in the swamps
compared to outside. They suspect that the regular flow of pure water is caused by the aerial
and stilt roots of Dodda patre (Myristica magnifica var. fatua) and Ondanki mara
(Gymnacranthera canarica), the key species in the freshwater swamps. A senior member of
the Danmavu village forest committee noted:
It is a health security issue. We receive clean mineral water throughout the year,
naturally from the freshwater swamps and there is no need of energy to pump it out.
One should test the quality of the water coming out of the swamp and from other
places. We never get sick because of water pollution as people in the cities do, this is
the real benefit of the swamp, our policy makers and bureaucrats should think of this
and make serious efforts to conserve them. The swamp acts as a sponge, it is a natural
reservoir, groundwater gets recharged through these swamps, and we never had a
problem of water in our village because of the swamps.
This view is widely shared across the villages. Across all stakeholder groups, the
hydrological value of sacred swamps was highly appreciated (see Table 2).
Religious values
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
Believers frequently expressed the sentiment that the deities protect them personally as well
as the entire community. As one temple committee member in Chaare said:
We worship the deity in the sacred swamp with due respect and in turn the deity
protects us. This regard is to the extent that when the cow does not milk properly,
when our cattle gets lost while grazing in the nearby forests, if someone is ill, an
infant is sick, or when a small baby from our guest family cries too much when they
visit us, we pray to the deity, we offer coconut. We do not enter the forest, but far
away in our home only we offer to the deity.
An elderly woman from Kudgund said: ‘Nobody should break these traditional laws; entering
the forest and collecting the forest resources or polluting inside; we have seen incidents that
the deity would become angry and curse them’.
Local residents strongly believe that when the rituals are regularly followed and rules
respected, the presiding deity at the sacred swamp protects them from evil and wards off
illness. ‘We perform festival (devara habba) during the fresh harvest of paddy rice: paddy
de-husked at the home front and paddy rice is prepared and then boiled and offered to the
deity,’ said a younger man from Kudegodu. An 80-year-old believer group member from
Talakeri said:
I am worshipping the deity for the last 40 years or more. Before that my father was
worshipping. Our family is performing this worship since time immemorial and we
are continuing this tradition. We continue the rituals and follow what our ancestors
were doing. While worshipping we will be fasting from morning to evening. There
are few incidences, when people collected fuel wood and green leaf from the [sacred]
forest, but many times immediately something wrong happened: cattle got ill or broke
their leg or people got sick. Previously, people believed that the presiding deity at the
sacred swamp would control even thieves from entering our garden and house.
A woman from Kaulkuli said: ‘We worship the deity and our crop and farmland is protected.’
While it is not surprising that believers and temple committee members assigned high
religious value to the swamps, it is noteworthy that juveniles also tended to recognize this
value (see Table 2).
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
The score was lowest with migrants. Migrants of the same community of faith or living
nearby the swamp are invited to the rituals. For example, in Kudgund village, the believers
and migrants belong to the same (Haslers) community and the latter are invited to all events.
In contrast, migrants from a different faith or religion, as in the village of Nilkund, are not
invited by the locals and do not follow the sacred swamp rules.
Biodiversity values
Participants in the discussion groups have some sense of species found exclusively in the
swamp forests. A senior person from Talakeri village said that ‘several species are found
only in the swamp forests and nowhere else. Frogs, spiders, birds and butterflies play around
here’. In discussion, they named the following plant species (scientific name, endemism and
threat status added in brackets by the authors):
Ondanki mara (Gymnacranthera canarica – endemic to Western Ghats and
vulnerable as per IUCN red listing),
Dodda patre (Myristica magnifica var. fatua – endemic and endangered),
Kempu Nerlu (Syzigium travencoricum – endemic and critically endangered),
Pandavara adike (Pinanga dicksonii – endemic not yet assessed for the IUCN red list)
Dhooma (Dipterocarpus indicus – endemic and endangered)
Kaanu Holageru (Semecarpus kathalekanensis – endemic to Western Ghats, not yet
assessed for the IUCN red list)
Kiral Bhogi (Hopea parviflora – endemic to Western Ghats and endangered)
Kedige (Pandanus unipapillatus – endemic, not yet assessed for the IUCN red list)
Several medicinal plants, herbs and climber species that are endemic to swamps
Especially the village forest committee leaders valued biodiversity (scoring 4), whereas
believers tended to recognise special sacred swamp biodiversity somewhat lower (score
3.38), and migrants even less (score 2.5).
Recreational values
Juveniles and women especially most valued the recreational (incl. aesthetical) value of the
sacred swamps (with a score of 3.8 and 3.5 respectively). A girl from Kudegodu village said
that the sacred swamps are a magnificent place to relax. The perennial water, fragrance of
flowers, the bees, insects and birds make the place most beautiful in her opinion. An elderly
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
male local administrator from Talakeri village suggested that the sacred swamps could be a
perfect natural tourism place. According to both, such recreational activities could be
organized without disturbing the traditional rules and regulations and without entering into
the core area of the sacred swamps.
Utilitarian value
In the buffer zone NTFPs can be collected by the believers, without cutting the trees. NTFPs
are collected from the ground, especially fallen fruits. The believer group does not allow
other groups to exploit the natural resources in the sacred swamps. In this way they monitor
the ecosystem and participate in the protection of these areas. Still, perception of utilitarian
value is rather low in all stakeholder groups, not reaching beyond a score of 3 for any group
(see Table 2). The reason is economic: the swamps contain less NTFP than other parts of the
forest. ‘Tropical wild fruits like Vaate huli, (Artocarpus lakoocha), Arishina gurige (Garcinia
morella) and the commercially important Raampatre (Myristica malabarica), wild bee honey
and several other NTFPs are available adjacent to the sacred swamp,’ a NTFP collector
woman from Korse Chapparamane said. Leaves of Arenga wightii (for making brooms),
Pinanga dicksonii leaves (to be plaited into mats) and fruit rind of Garcinia gummi-gutta
have a huge market. ‘All these NTFP products are collected in the forests adjacent to the
sacred swamp,’ a NTFP collector woman from Birlakanu sacred forest added.
Social values
During rituals in the swamp, people from different social and wealth-classes come together.
In the discussion groups, it was said that this provides an opportunity to meet, discuss and
have a platform for socialization. A middle-aged believer in the village Kudgund said:
We worship the Jatka and Beerlu god and the trees every year on ellu amavasye (a
new moon day in December or January according to Hindu calendar), we cook the
food in the swamp forest and take the lunch there itself, all the villagers take part in
this event, neighbours and relatives are invited to attend. In the night also we take
dinner together in the village, obviously providing room for socialization.
Scores for this value attained a maximum of 3 and, perhaps surprisingly, were lowest among
the VFC group.
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
Overall Table 2 shows substantial differences between the scores assigned by the various
stakeholders. The test for combined column factors, across stakeholders and scores, shows
that differences are statistically significant.
4. Discussion
The outcome of our valuation inventory to some extent depends on how the stakeholders are
classified and how the various persons assigned themselves to a stakeholder category. A good
classification should be mutually exclusive (i.e. classes should not overlap and every person
should be assignable to only one category) and jointly exhaustive - the total set of classes
should cover all diversity (Gupta, 2007, Moore and McCabe, 2005). However, in the village
setting such a sharp, absolute division and assignment are not possible. We tried to mitigate
this problem by asking each participant to assign him/herself to the stakeholder category this
person represented best. The final assignment was supported by the entire community.
India has a long tradition of sacred ecology (Chandran et al 1998). This tradition is deep,
illustrated by sacred forests already being mentioned in the Rug-Veda (said to be written
about 3000 to 4000 years ago), and their interpretation by contemporary priests, scholars and
faith groups. However, we did not focus on the interpretation of texts but – consistent with
the sociology of religion (Joas, 2017) – on sacred ecology as a cultural practice, i.e. on the
rituals, practices and rules that groups living in landscapes with sacred swamps create and
reproduce. The traditional rules are passed on orally in the belief groups. Such self-
understanding – as we saw – creates an invisible fence, which protects such swamps from
exploitation and pollution, and which appears to be a resilient practice with a long but so far
hardly documented history.
Still, such practices are being challenged and threatened: economic development is land
intensive and leads to land use changes as an external pressure; associated population
dynamics mean that local faith groups live with newcomers around the freshwater swamps,
while their own young generation might aspire to lead a different life in the quickly growing
urban centres of India.
Our research suggests that within the belief groups a comprehensive understanding of
freshwater swamps is alive. It is comprehensive in the sense that the value of sacred swamps
is not reducible to direct economic use value but rather present across various aspects of
social practices. It is also comprehensive in the sense that sacred swamps are not understood
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
as a separate entity in the physical proximity to villages, but rather as a place the relation to
which is important for well-being (in a wide sense) in the villages.
While the logic of rule transgression and punishment by the gods is magical from an etic
perspective of ecosystem service science or from a purely secular perspective, which rejects
the idea of deities having causal influence on villages if they are not properly respected,
closer attention to the cultural environment shows a significant overlap of religious and other,
“secular” values. The ecosystem services of freshwater swamps, for example water
purification and provision, demonstrate an important relation between the swamps and
livelihood in the village. Indeed, hydrological value scored most highly across all groups. In
conjunction with the likewise high score for religious value, our results underscore the
importance of a focus on nature’s contributions to people’s quality of life in the new IPBES
(Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services)
conceptual framework that reflects the importance of socio-cultural relations between people
and nature for nature conservation in a specific place (Diaz et al. 2018). Sacred swamp is an
example for such a place-based cultural category, which at the same time can be analysed in
terms of more general material, non-material and regulative contributions to human well-
being. By the combination of focus group discussion and a scoring exercise we have pursued
such a two lenses approach (Diaz et al. 2018). The discussion primarily focused on sacred
swamps as a cultural category of central importance for understanding the relation between
people and nature in a place. The study benefited from the emic perspective of the lead
author, who has been raised and who works in the Western Ghats. The scoring exercise
provided a tool to track more general, perceived value benefits, even for those not belonging
to the faith group. In this more general lense, hydrological and biodiversity values belong to
the regulating contributions, utilitarian value to material contribution, and religious,
recreational and social value to immaterial contributions. In particular, the manifold
biodiversity and utilitarian values open the space for a humble and respectful relation towards
systems beyond our full grasp and control – i.e. a relation, which from a different tradition is
also evident in the rituals of sacred swamps.
It is noteworthy that even though there was some knowledge on biodiversity, the score for
biodiversity value among believers was not high. This suggests an opportunity for scientific
and state-organised nature conservation research and policy to draw on the respecting attitude
and local knowledge in faith groups to foster deepened and systematised value perception of
freshwater swamps.
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
Our research pointed to a challenge where faith groups intersect with migrants in the villages,
and where the latter do not know or respect the sacred swamps. Where newcomers share the
faith group, one way of dealing with the challenge (already evident in the villages) is to invite
the newcomers to participate in the festivals and rituals. In this way, the tradition can seek to
renew itself even in the face of the population dynamics of contemporary India.
However, it may also be the case that old and new villagers do not share the same religion.
As the example of the village of Bogrimakki shows, this can lead to a radical shift: the
culture-sustained invisible fence turns into a visible fence constructed by villagers (with the
support of the forest department) to block migrants from entering the swamp.
However, a purely religious justification for such a fence seems both costly and potentially
illegitimate. A fence has to be constructed, maintained and policed to protect a deity that has
no place in the world of other faith or secular groups. It is therefore noteworthy that secular
values such as hydrological, recreational and social values are faith-independent and in this
sense more widely accessible. This observation suggests a possible renewal of sacred swamp
traditions in a way that integrates and makes explicit such accessible values that strengthen
the justification of the protection status for non-believers and by implication likely also the
acceptance of the local tradition. This would require finding a way in which other faith
groups and non-believers can be invited to participate in the swamp rituals on the account of
their proximity to the swamp and their membership of the village community, thereby
directly fostering social value and indirectly the mutual respecting of religious and other
In many countries local traditions are being challenged by westernized urban cultures, so that
the institution of sacred groves is losing its cultural importance for the younger generation of
local people (Bhagwat and Rutte 2006). Here too our value exploration is interesting: it
pointed to a high endorsement of recreational/aesthetical as well as hydrological values of
freshwater swamps among the juveniles (who at least in our case are still quite accepting of
the religious values as well). Accordingly, and similar to the valuation of the migrants, an
emphasis on such accessible, overlapping values might offer an attractive avenue to renew
and maintain the tradition of sacred swamps.
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
5. Conclusions
In this paper, we have explored the values associated with sacred swamps, with an emphasis
on their re-production in rituals and practices. In this way, we establish sacred swamps as a −
so far mostly overlooked − approach to livelihood preservation and nature conservation.
While sacred swamps are old, they are also under pressure not least due to the economic and
population dynamics of secular nation states. We have tried to demystify the perception of
sacred swamps as a marginalised vestige of the past via a focus on the rituals, practices and
rules of sacred swamps in contemporary India. Consistent with the sociology of religion
(Joas, 2017), we found important, extra-ordinary rituals around annual festivals that (re)-
establish the shared status of the sacred place, and in this way provide meaning and effect to
everyday rules of sacred swamp management via a self-regulating, invisible fence. At the
same time, these religious practices make sense as – often no longer recognized, mystified,
but originally practical use-oriented – long-term, complex social-ecological experiences of
living with an ecosystem with vital supporting, regulating and provisioning contributions to
human livelihoods. As a result, there are considerable overlaps between the religious sacred
approach and nature conservation as a science-based environmental policy. Accordingly, we
conclude our paper with two considerations for policy and further research.
Fostering sacred biodiversity reserves via accessible values in practice.
Our research suggests that sacred status has the potential to conserve freshwater swamps.
However, such status cannot be declared top-down; it depends on believers who follow the
faith and endorse the practice. Moreover, faith groups are placed, in secular states at least, in
a world with other faith groups (and agnostic and atheistic groups). In response, we have
explored the heterogeneity of values within a sacred place. It points to what we have called
accessible values, i.e. values that are also open to other groups, in our case for example,
hydrological, recreational and social values. It is an important policy consideration to explore
the potential of such accessible values to foster a dialogue around sacred swamps and their
place for livelihoods and nature conservation. For this, we especially emphasise the
importance of rituals and shared practices to reproduce and renew such values in practice.
Understanding agency in sacred swamp governance. This article has focused on the rich
variety of values around sacred swamps. Such values, and associated practices, are not static.
Rather they are reproduced, renewed or discarded by participants of the practice. Moreover,
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
to address the need to bridge different cultures and stakeholder groups, it would be
worthwhile to explore the role of intermediaries in this process: organisations or networks -
from government, local community organizations, civil society, science (or hybrids thereof) -
which can provide bridges between local traditions and the external pressures of the political
economy of contemporary secular states.
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
Table 1. Name and characteristics of rituals performed in the sacred swamps.
Name of the ritual
Activities/traditional laws
Believers remove fallen twigs
and dry leaves from the area
surrounding the
stone/sculpture representing
the deity. Then the priest
cleans the stone/sculpture with
panchgavya (a mixture of
honey, milk, curd, and cow
dung and cow urine),
performs the puja with
incense sticks, breaks a
coconut and again does the
puja with camphor. Sweet
dishes called ‘Suttevu’ and
Payasam’ are prepared by the
belief group, offered by the
priest to the presiding deity
(an act called Naivedya), and
then distributed to all people
Diwali (Deepavali),
Believers clean the area and
the priest cleans the
stone/sculpture with
panchgavya. Then puja and
Naivedya are performed to the
deity. Coconut and a sweet
dish made out of jiggery, rice
and cardamom are offered to
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
the deity and then distributed
to the participants as
Prasadam (food sanctified by
the god, religious offering
consumed by the worshippers
after worship).
Makar Sankranti
The first harvest of paddy rice
is de-husked and cooked near
the sacred swamp. The priest
prays on behalf of the
community for protection of
the crops from wild animals
and diseases, protection of
people from disease and
finally for a successful hunt of
wild animals (even though
hunting is no longer allowed
by the state).
Nagara Panchami
A special puja is offered
Devara Habba
Worship includes a religious
prayer during which the
believers offer coconut,
flowers, prayer - puja with
incentive sticks, dhoopam - a
holy fragrance and other
offerings to the deity. Some
sweet is offered as part of the
prayer and then distributed as
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
prasadam to all present during
the event.
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
Table 2. Mean scores (green ≥3.5, yellow 2.5-3.5, red <2.5; with standard deviation) given by
various stakeholders (n = number of persons per category) to swamp related values, using a
discrete 4 points scale (4 is highest, 1 is lowest). Analysis of variance ANOVA: F is variance
ratio, i.e mean sum of square/residual. The numbers in parentheses represent the degrees of
freedom (5), the number of observations (n1, n2), and the level of significance (0.01). The
ANOVA results show that (as calculated F is greater than tabulated F) the null hypothesis,
that scores among stakeholders for the various values are equal, is rejected at the 1% level of
4 ± 00
4 ± 00
3.38 ±
2.92 ± 0.277
2.54 ±
3 ±
F (5, 72, 0.01)
= 36.98
e members
4 ± 00
4 ± 00
3 ± 00
2.92 ± 0.289
3 ± 0.426
3 ± 00
F (5, 66, 0.01)
= 76.89
4 ± 00
3.8 ±
3.1 ±
3.5± 0.527
2.8 ±
2.9 ±
F (5, 54, 0.01)
= 17.82
4 ± 00
3.91 ±
3.18 ±
3.82 ± 0.405
3 ± 00
3 ± 00
F (5, 60, 0.01)
= 35.893
4 ± 00
3.27 ±
3.45 ±
2.82 ± 0.405
3 ± 0.447
2.82 ±
F (5, 60, 0.01)
= 13.67
4 ± 00
2.9 ±
3 ± 00
2.8 ± 0.422
2.3 ±
2.3 ±
F (5, 54, 0.01)
= 31.988
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
4± 00
3 ± 0.603
4 ± 00
3 ± 0.426
2 ± 00
2 ± 00
F (5, 66, 0.01)
= 107.2
4 ± 00
2.6 ±
2.5 ±
2.4 ± 0.516
2 ± 0.471
2.3 ±
F (5, 55, 0.01)
= 20.139
Bhagwat, S.A. and C. Rutte. 2006. Sacred groves: potential for biodiversity
management. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 4. pp 519-524.
Bhagwat, S.A., S. Nogu´e. and K.J. Willis. 2014. Cultural drivers of reforestation in tropical
forest groves of the Western Ghats of India. Forest Ecology and Management, 329. pp. 393–
Bhagwat, S.A., S. Nogu´e and K.J. Willis. 2012. Resilience of an ancient tropical forest
landscape to 7500 years of environmental change. Biological Conservation, 153. pp.108-117.
Brown, N., S.A. Bhagwat and S. Watkinson. 2006. Macrofungal diversity in fragmented and
disturbed forests of the Western Ghats of India. Journal of Applied Ecology, 4. pp.11-17.
Chandran, M.D.S., M. Gadgil. and J.H. Hughes. 1998. Sacred Groves of the Western Ghats
of India. In Conserving the sacred for biodiversity management, edited by P.S.
Ramakrishnan, K.G. Saxena and U.M. Chandrashekara. Enfield, N.H: Science Publishers
Chevalier, J.M. and Buckles D.J. 2008. SAS2 social analysis systems: A guide to
collaborative inquiry and social engagement. Ottawa: International Development Research
De Boef, W.S. and Thijssen MH. 2007. Participatory tools working with crops, varieties and
seeds. A guide for professionals applying participatory approaches in agrobiodiversity
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
management, crop improvement and seed sector development. Wageningen: Wageningen UR
Centre for Development Innovation.
De Groot, R.S., M.A. Wilson and R.M. Boumans. 2002. A typology for the classification,
description and valuation of ecosystem functions, goods and services. Ecological economics.
41 (3), pp.393-408
Díaz, S., U. Pascual, M. Stenseke, B. Martín-López, R.T. Watson, Z. Molnár, R. Hill, K.M.
Chan, I.A Baste, KA. Brauman and S. Polasky. 2018. Assessing nature's contributions to
people. Science, 359 (6373), pp.270-272.
Durkheim, E. 1915. The elementary forms of the religious life. London: George Allen &
Garg, A. 2013. Typology of sacred groves and their discrimination from sacred sites. Current
Science, pp.596-599.
Gibson, L., T.M. Lee, L.P. Koh, B.W. Brook, T.A. Gardner, J. Barlow, C.A. Peres, C.J.
Bradshaw, W.F. Laurance, T.E. Lovejoy and N.S. Sodhi. 2011. Primary forests are
irreplaceable for sustaining tropical biodiversity. Nature 478 (7369), pp.378-381.
Gupta, S.C. 2007. Fundamentals of statistics. Himalaya Publishing House. New Delhi.
Gregory, S.D., B. W. Brook, B. Goossens, M. Ancrenaz, R.Alfred, L.N. Ambu and D.A.
Fordham. 2012. Long-term field data and climate-habitat models show that orang-utan
persistence depends on effective forest management and greenhouse gas mitigation. PloS
one 7 (9) e43846.
Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2015. Global Forest
Resources Assessment 2015. How are the world’s forest changing? Second edition: Rome,
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
Hansen, M.C., P.V. Potapov, R.Moore, M.Hancher, S.A. Turubanova, A.Tyukavina, D.Thau,
S.V.Stehman, S.J. Goetz, T.R. Loveland and A.Kommareddy. 2013. High-resolution global
maps of 21st-century forest cover change. Science 342 (6160), pp.850-853.
Hegde, N., R. Ziegler, C. Greiser and H. Joosten. (2018). A preliminary assessment of
landscape features and cultural practices of sacred fresh water swamps in the central Western
Ghats, India. Wetlands ecology and management, 26 (1), 49-61.1;41(3):393-408.
Hegde, N., R. Ziegler and H. Joosten. (forth coming). Impact of traditional conservation
practices, a comparative study of sacred and non-sacred swamp forests, with respect to
species composition and diversity patterns in the central Western Ghats, India.
Hughes, J.D., and M.D.S Chandran. 1998. “Sacred groves around the earth: An overview”.
In Conserving the sacred for biodiversity management, edited by P.S. Ramakrishnan, K.G.
Saxena and U.M. Chandrashekara. Enfield, N.H: Science Publishers
Joas, H. 2017. Die Macht des Heiligen: Eine Alternative zur Geschichte von der
Entzauberung. Berlin: Suhrkamp.
Laurance, W.F. 2004. Forest–climate interactions in fragmented tropical landscapes.
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 359 (1443), pp.345-
Moore, D.S. and G.P. McCabe. 2005. Introduction to the Practice of Statistics. W.H.
Freeman and Company, New York.
Morales-Hidalgo, D., S.N. Oswalt and E. Somanathan. 2015. Status and trends in global
primary forest, protected areas, and areas designated for conservation of biodiversity from the
Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015. Forest Ecology and Management 352: pp.68-77.
O' Neill, J., A. Holland and A. Light. 2008. Environmental values: Routledge., London and
New York.
Forthcoming in Environmental Values. ©2020 The White Horse Press
Osuri, A.M., M.D. Madhusudan, V.S. Kumar, S.K. Chengappa, C.G. Kushalappa and M.
Sankaran. 2014. Spatio-temporal variation in forest cover and biomass across sacred groves
in a human-modified landscape of India’s Western Ghats. Biological conservation, 178,
Reynolds, T.W., C.D. Collins, A. Wassie, J. Liang, W. Briggs, M. Lowman, T.S Sisay and E.
Adamu. 2017. Sacred natural sites as mensurative fragmentation experiments in long
inhabited multifunctional landscapes. Ecography 40 (1), pp.144-157.
Stoll-Kleemann, S. and A. Kettner. 2016. “Schutzgebiete.” In Ott, K., J. Dierks. and L.
Voget-Kleschin. eds., 2016. Handbuch Umweltethik. JB Metzler.
Thoreau, H.D. 1862. Walking. The Atlantic Monthly, A Magazine of Literature, Art, and
Politics. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 9: 657 – 674.
Wright, S.J. 2005. Tropical forests in a changing environment. Trends in ecology &
evolution 20, pp.553-560.
Zar J.H. 1999. Biostatistical analysis. Pearson Education India.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Outline to the guide Within our training programmes on local management of agrobiodiversity, participatory crop improvement and the support of local seed supply participatory tools get ample attention. Tools are dealt with theoretically, are practised in class situations, but are also applied in field study assignments. The objectives of practising participatory tools in training on local agrobiodiversity management and related to that the objectives of this guide are many. However, the current guide book has the following key objective being to provide professionals working in a genetic resources management, crop improvement and seed sector development context a kit with a diversity of tools developed for participatory learning and action that have been adapted to their specific context. In addition to this main goal, we aim to enhance those professionals’ creativity and flexibility in conducting group oriented, participatory learning and action types of diagnosis, research planning and implementation, and monitoring and evaluation with agrobiodiversity, plant breeding and seed projects. We used the handbook as developed by Frans Geilfus , which covers 80 tools for participatory development as an important base for this tools guide. A selection of tools from Geilfus and others have been adapted in a series of participatory instruments that can support agrobiodiversity management, crop improvement and seed sector development. The structure is basically derived from this book. The examples and selection of tools have been inspired on actual experiences during courses on participatory crop improvement, seed sector development, and local management of agrobiodiversity as organised by Wageningen International over the last 10 years. Some other tools are derived form other sources. The tools have been tested in local projects in various countries in South America (Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela), West Africa (Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire), Ethiopia, Nepal and India. The guide has been designed is such a way that it is easy to use as a reference in the field. The sequence of the tools is similar to that often used in participatory analysis, starting with general tools, moving to tools providing more details on specific topics, and going up to more analytical tools that can be applied with communities, but also can assist the facilitation team in analysing (after the diagnosis) the information gathered. However, which tools to apply, what type with whom, in what sequence, depends very much on the setting and the objectives of the exercise. Please, consider this no recipe book, but rather a kit with tools you can or may use. We consider the guide an inspiration to encourage you in adapting, merging and thereby designing your own tools.
Summary • Despite their functional importance, little is known about how and where fungi can be conserved. It is important that we understand the consequences of habitat degradation and fragmentation for fungal assemblages if we are to devise successful conservation strategies. • We investigated the effects of fragmentation and disturbance on the diversity and landscape distribution of fungi in tropical rain forests in the Kodagu district of the Western Ghats of India. We recorded macrofungi on three occasions over a wet season, in 0·125-ha plots in 10 forest reserve sites, 25 sacred groves and 23 coffee plantations. • Despite a long history of isolation from continuous forest, sacred groves had the highest sporocarp abundance and the greatest morphotype richness per sample area, while coffee plantations had the lowest. However, coffee plantation samples were more diverse for a given number of sporocarps than a sample of a similar size from other forest types. • Ordination by non-metric multidimensional scaling suggested that sacred groves had a macrofungal assemblage that was distinct from other forest types. This compositional difference was primarily because of the presence of a group of dead wood and litter decomposing fungi. Coffee plantations and forest reserve sites had very variable but overlapping compositions. • Neither sacred grove size nor distances between a grove and continuous forest accounted for a significant proportion of the total variation in their macrofungal richness. • There was no significant correlation between dissimilarity in macrofungal assemblage composition and geographical distance between sample sites. However, we found strong congruence between patterns of dissimilarity in macrofungi and trees between sites. • Synthesis and applications. These results imply that macrofungal distribution patterns at a landscape scale are determined by habitat requirements rather than dispersal or local population dynamics. This means that habitat degradation is a more serious threat to fungal diversity than fragmentation. Sacred groves, although small, are important for fungus conservation because they provide unique types of habitat. Journal of Applied Ecology (2005) doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2005.01107.x