In July I spent 10 days in India. It was beautiful and wet and green and challenging and I’m still not sure what all I learned because I think I was at max capacity every day and that a lot of things are still filtering through my brain. Here are some thoughts.
First, some context– part of the reason my blog has gone, shall we say, quiet in the last two years has a lot to do with me being in grad school. I started with Miami University’s Project Dragonfly in spring of 2017 (that’s Miami University in Oxford Ohio, not to be confused with U of M in Florida) as part of the Advanced Inquiry Program, or AIP. It’s a program meant to bring a wide range of folks into the conservation biology field from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds, with the idea that the field can benefit from all of our perspectives and knowledge. It’s been, shall we say, interesting to be in this program with a fine arts background, but it’s also given me a chance to pursue things that I’ve been passionate about since childhood and I cannot recommend it enough if you’re looking for a way to get a toe into science-world.
AIP runs through partnerships with “Master Institutions” that host electives and the in-person portion of the otherwise online degree program, and my master institution is San Diego Zoo Global. (Cool, right?)
But we were talking about India, right? So, for part of the program, we have the option of taking a course called an “Earth Expedition“– essentially an intensive 10 day experience to learn about conservation happening internationally through various themes explored in each site. Since my focus is on narrative and storytelling for conservation, visiting India was a great opportunity.
India is a fascinating place for conservation because of the presence of sacred groves, pockets of forest surrounding temples and sacred sites connected to the villages dotted across the country. These groves often provide the only remaining resource for native species and are considered* a key piece of conserving biodiversity in an extremely threatened habitat. In order to learn about the ways that cultural narrative and story have preserved these forest remnants, it meant going into India’s Western Ghats.
To give this post a little bit of a lens, I want to talk about it in terms of connections. I honestly think that was the biggest theme for me personally throughout the trip. The reason sacred groves work is, in large part, due to the connection between the local people and the land*. Their beliefs, their culture, their way of making a living is all historically connected to the groves and the land around it. This connection is their buy-in, as it were. But herein lies the rub: in a country where it can be challenging to make a living at all, land becomes a commodity. It can be difficult to persuade folks that standing trees are as valuable as the wood they provide. Long term vs short term investments and all.
This brings us to another connection– our in-country partners and hosts while in India, AERF, and the work they do. AERF has gotten to know the communities connected to the sacred groves and works with them to provide incentives to keep the trees standing. They make personal connections in the villages, train people to be forest protectors, promote conservation through traditional methods**, and more.
Finally, the last connection I want to discuss is a big one: the connection between humans and the other living things on the planet. I think we hear a lot about things like “food webs” and such (and in biology-land there are “trophic cascades” and other things), but the thing that hit me the hardest while standing in the middle of a forest in India, with rain pouring down on me while I looked up at a tree with a height I can only halfway fathom is how connected we all are. The big picture systems of our planet mean that none of this exists without the whole. Heck, there is research suggesting that the minerals that feed the Amazon rain forest come*** form the Sahara desert, halfway across the world. What might the trees in India’s Western Ghats be feeding? (Besides us, and the oxygen/CO2 cycle they help facilitate, of course!)
Want to know more about the Western Ghats as a biodiversity hotspot**** and what makes it so neat? Check out the links below!
*Bhagwat, S. A., & Rutte, C. (2006). Sacred groves: potential for biodiversity management. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 4(10), 519-524. (CLICK TO READ)
***Koren, I., Kaufman, Y. J., Washington, R., Todd, M. C., Rudich, Y., Martins, J. V., & Rosenfeld, D. (2006). The Bodélé depression: a single spot in the Sahara that provides most of the mineral dust to the Amazon forest. Environmental Research Letters, 1(1), 014005. (CLICK TO READ)
****Gunawardene, N. R., Daniels, D. A., Gunatilleke, I. A. U. N., Gunatilleke, C. V. S., Karunakaran, P. V., Nayak, G. K., … & Vasanthy, G. (2007). A brief overview of the Western Ghats–Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot. Current science, 93(11), 1567-1572. (CLICK TO READ)