BY ASAVARI KULKARNI
The first week of March proved to be quite a nightmare for Goa when major patches of Goa’s forests – the wildlife sanctuaries – came under, allegedly man-made fire. Although the burning of grasslands is a common scene in Goa’s midlands every year, forest fires are a rare sight in the state.
GOA'S MOIST FORESTS
If you look closely at Goa’s forests, you will find that nearly 600 sq km of forests are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act.
This area comprises a mix of moist deciduous, semi-evergreen and evergreen types of forests with a huge canopy and forest floor show presence of understory plants like karvi. Hence, these forests are moist almost throughout the year.
FOREST FIRES: POSSIBLE REASONS
Every year, Goa receives copious amounts of rainfall during the monsoon season.
Besides this, there is a spell of unseasonal rain in the months of December and March. This year, however, this bout of rain was absent. Hence, the biomass on the forest floor was dry and scorched, which could have resulted in the burning of these forests of Goa.
Extreme climatic conditions might be one of the reasons, while there are theories that there may have been human intervention involved, too, which could be the reason for the raging fires.
But, whatever said and done, it is true that we have not only lost important floral and faunal species, but have also lost almost five years of our future!
FORESTS ARE GOA'S LUNGS
According to experts, forests contribute in a big way to the ecological balance and are the lungs of the earth. So now, when we have lost such an important treasure, what lies next?
RESTORING THE FORESTS
Without a doubt, experts in the field have likely already put on their thinking caps -- planning and implementing ideas to restore our lost treasure -- which, in reality, is next to impossible because nobody can restore Nature.
Nature plays by its own rules and conditions, and has its own way of healing itself.
SACRED GROVES: GENE BANK OF GOA'S FORESTS
However, Goa still has hope in the wild, thanks to our ancestors and the Sacred Groves. Before it was banned in 1972, the practice of slash and burn agriculture was prevalent on the hill slopes of Goa.
Every year, a new patch of forest land would be cleared in order to cultivate millets and other crops. This form of agriculture was called kumeri. What we see today is actually a secondary forest, grown after the ban of kumeri in 1972.
While the entire forest land was converted into kumeri ground, our ancestors had conserved some important patches of forest, and devoted it to certain gods and goddess. These tracts of forest land are called Sacred Groves.
WHAT ARE SCARED GROVES?
Locally, these Sacred Groves are called Dev rai, paika pann, pann etc. These patches are governed by strict rules and regulations, which the local community adheres to, even today.
Nobody dares to disobey or defy these rules. Not a single leaf or dead wood, has been taken out of these groves for hundreds of years.
Therefore, the biodiversity thriving inside these forest is the original one. The components found in these forests are not found anywhere else, and not even in the vicinity of these groves.
BENEFITS OF SACRED GROVES
Sacred Groves are highly productive ecosystems with a thriving population of insects, lichens and micro-organisms. The abundance of vegetation offers an assortment of habitats, which attracts birds and animals, and creates a robust food web.
Sacred Groves vary in size -- from a few trees to dense forests -- covering vast tracts of land. These groves are important today as they serve as banks of genetic and plant diversity in dire need of being preserved and sustained.
SACRED GROVES AND WATER SUPPLY
Fresh water streams and springs are common features of the grove. In the past, these were the prime sources that supplied water for drinking and agricultural purposes to the villages located downstream.
Sattari and Sanguem talukas have the highest area preserved under forests. And, the presence of Sacred Groves is probably one of the main reasons for this protected green cover.
It is said that each village in Goa has at least one such grove, which is protected in the name of a local deity or devchar (rakhandar).
SACRED GROVES IN GOA
Sacred Groves can extend from a small patch of a few trees to hectares of forest area. These groves display unique flora and fauna unseen even in forest areas in the vicinity.
Keri village, in Sattari Taluka, has one of the highest numbers of Sacred Groves. It has one of the largest Sacred Groves, called Ajobajchi Rai, which is spread across 10 hectares of land.
Holiyechi Rai, in Karanzol village, is the largest Sacred Grove in Goa, spread across 27 hectares of land.
Devachi Rai, in Kopardem village, is another important grove which is conserved in its original status till this day.
The Sacred Grove, Purvatali Rai, located in the mining-hit village of Surla in the Bicholim taluka, became the state’s first biodiversity heritage site in the year 2019.
This site encompasses 7,300 sqm of forested land in survey number 57/1 of Joshi Bhat. Dedicated to the folk deity, Betal, it possesses a wealth of trees, medicinal herbs and wildlife despite being virtually surrounded by mining pits. It is also pivotal to the recharging of aquifers in the area.
UNIQUENESS OF SACRED GROVES IN GOA
Some of these Sacred Groves are an abode of unique ecosystems which will not be found anywhere else in the world. For example, in Goa, we have mangrove ecosystem in estuaries, and we also have fresh water swamps, often termed as Myristica swamps.
These forests are unique in terms of floral components. As these are basically swamps, the tree species growing in these forests show unique adaption to the environment. They have knee-shaped, u turned roots, like those in mangroves.
Myristica (wild nutmeg) is the major tree species found in such forests. But recently, one such grove with a rare tree species, called Semicarpous katlecansis (bibo), was found in Ajobachi Tali grove in Bramhakarmali village in Sattari taluka.
In the entire world, this tree is found only in three to four places in Uttar Canara district of Karnataka! Another such fresh water swamp was identified at Barazan, in the Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary recently.
These community-protected forest patches are vulnerable due to increasing unplanned urbanisation and rampant developmental activities.
Our ancestors wisely utilised forest resources and protected important resources in the name of religious sanctum sanctorum. But today, they are threatened by ruthless anthropological pressure.
As we observe World Forest Day today, protection of Nature's gene bank should be our priority.
When everything around us is lost, these forests will show us the way forward for sure!
(Asavari Kulkarni is an environmentalist and covers topics on environment and social aspects)