Whatever Thoreauvian notions you might harbor about nature in the tropics, the truth is that here, deep in the “jungle,” modernization has had as much of an impact as anywhere else, and what you see is not quite natural.

Take, for example, the Coorg region of southern India, whose misty slopes are blanketed by lush vegetation.

In 1854, the British began planting non-native coffee in Coorg. Coffee was later followed by other non-native species—the introduction of which was typically dictated by short-term economic interests, as in the case of eucalyptus and acacia, or simply out of a desire to prettify the cottage gardens of plantation managers, as in the case of the ubiquitous lantana and the Jamaican blue spike.

Romantics may take heart, however, from the fact that nature can still be found in a few patches of primeval, undisturbed forest, i.e., the region’s sacred groves.

These sacred groves date from a much more ancient time of hunter-gatherers and have been preserved in their virgin state from perhaps as early as the sixth century C.E., when agriculture was first introduced into the region.1

Within these groves, customary law forbade routine human activities, such as tree felling, collection of biomass, removal of earth, hunting, fishing, grazing, and agriculture.

The deities that presided over these groves took aniconic forms (much like the sacred groves of ancient Greece, where one famous sacred grove was dedicated to Bona Dea or the good goddess, who was not otherwise named).

They were hyper-local, unfamiliar to those from neighboring settlements, and could be represented by a pile of rocks or a termite hill.

Still, these deities were no less powerful for lacking a distinct identity. Stories abound of the terrible fates that befell those who violated the sanctity of the groves, even if they were harvesting timber from within the grove to build a temple for the grove’s deity.

 

The taboos on exploitation were very effective, with ecologists reporting that even today, within one hectare of sacred grove forest, as much as eighty-three percent of the vegetation is endemic, compared to fifteen percent in the surrounding area. Some groves have sixty different species of trees within a hectare.2

 

Aside from preserving biodiversity in the region, the grove forests also performed the extremely valuable function of regulating water runoff in a hilly region, preventing floods and releasing a year-round supply of water to streams.

But before we put too rosy a tint on the past, it’s unclear whether the rationale behind these sacred groves was conservationist or simply religious.

A religious rationale on its own would be no guarantee of conservation, since there are plenty of examples—the Ganges River comes to mind in particular—of people revering nature, yet not bothering themselves with its actual conservation.3

Moreover, religion, especially when it represented the centralized state, was often inimical to conservation.

As the centralized state encroached upon these hunter-gatherer societies, the state religion subsumed the vague grove deities into its fold by recasting them as incarnations of better-known gods and goddesses in the mainstream pantheon. This could be done simply by placing a metal mask on the pile of rocks previously worshipped as the grove deity.

The focus of the worship ritual then shifted away from simple nature worship to the construction of a temple for the newly promoted god/goddess, for which the timber was often sourced from the grove itself.

With the arrival of capitalistic colonialism, the sacred groves were further imperiled.

The British passed the Indian Forest Act in 1865, putting all forest resources under British ownership.

Under the new regime, indigenous communities were excluded from their traditional lands and left to gather fuel and graze cattle only in the degraded minor forests. In some instances, they had no option but to use the sacred groves.

The situation did not improve in independent India, which inherited the colonial administrative apparatus. Planners in government ministries paid no heed to the economic needs of indigenous inhabitants, who in turn disregarded designations such as “protected” or “reserved” that were applied to their traditional lands.

The upshot is that the modern conservation regime has been less successful than it could have, had it actually taken indigenous communities into account.

The news is not all bad, however. In recent years, conservationists have realized the importance of working with pre-existing local institutions, such as sacred groves, rather than imposing new ones from above. In cases where this has been the approach, the results for biodiversity conservation have been quite a bit more promising.4