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Man And Nature

Man And Nature

Bittu Sahgal discusses the importance, to nature and to people, of setting aside untouched "temple forests."

This migrant family in Gujarat drills bore wells to draw underground water for salt cultivation, and is facing climate change head-on. The underground water important for the family’s survival has evaporated due to rising temperatures. Photo: G. Pattabiraman.

I am among those who ask that significant parts of this planet be left totally alone so that nature’s production factory is able to do what it was designed to do since life on earth began.

I believe that these areas, devoted strictly to non-human biodiversity, will deliver benefits beyond their boundaries to human-dominated landscapes, where their “produce” can be harvested according to law or social custom. In days of yore such untouched geographies were called ‘temple forests’. These vast parcels of land were set aside for dead ancestors… no living human dared walk within them. Several times a year, on special occasions, priests would escort villagers into these hallowed precincts, to cleanse the human spirit and keep alive connections with ancestors, and to conduct ‘audits’ to confirm that no damage had been surreptitiously done. These ‘core areas’ were inviolate.

Today, with traditional cultures largely vanished, actual temple forests, much as we love to venerate them, are not large enough, or respected enough to perform the ecological role that the subcontinent requires. Some landscapes must therefore necessarily be placed out of bounds of rich and poor. But, as Bill Adams wrote for the Cambridge Conservation Forum: “Conservation plays on a much smaller stage, mopping nature’s wounds not addressing the cause of injury.” Therefore, industry on the one hand, and human rights on the other, lay unlimited claim to all lands, with predictable effect.

Absolutists on both ends of the scale (“Let’s industrialise and farm until we die” on the one hand and “vaporise humans and leave the entire planet alone” on the other) are equally loony. Nevertheless, human impacts have begun to rival geologic change on the planet. In India, the physical havoc caused to natural ecosystems by industrial pillage through mining, dams, roads, and urbanisation is matched if not exceeded today by deforestation due to encroachments for marginal farms, most of which fail to feed families within a few short years, forcing them to move deeper into forests. Both the rich (industry and city-dwellers) and the poor (rural folk and forest-fringe dwellers) are locked into “customs” that turn forests into wastelands.

The bottom line is that nature is already delivering us harsh consequences in the form of climate change and its handmaidens — floods, droughts, disease, and social upheaval. We are no longer on a collision path with nature: the impact has begun. We can only turn back the clock by getting our species in sync with the natural planet. There is literally no time to lose.


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Jennifer Scarlott

August 28, 2013, 12:11 AM
 If we don't do this, set aside tracts of wilderness, but WITHOUT just laying waste to what we do not set aside, Homo sapiens has a bleak future, and many other species, none. What a beautiful term "temple forests" is.
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