Sustainable use of plant and animal species by rural people can play an important role in conservation of particular ecosystems. In India, as elsewhere in many parts of the world, a number of communities traditionally prohibit harvests from patches of forests termed as ‘sacred groves’ and dedicated to deities or ancestral spirits. Amongst varied religious practices the most significant from an economic viewpoint are those relating to the preservation of sizable patches of forest, sometimes as much as 20 hectares in extent, as sacred groves.1
Ajeevali village (18.50 N, 73.520 E), with a land area of 493 ha, is situated in Maval taluka in Pune district, Maharashtra State in Western India. The nearest town is Lonavala. (28 km from Ajeevali) The village can be approached from Pune, which is at a distance of 50 km by road. The village is situated in the eastern offshoots of the Sahyadri mountain ranges (popularly known as the Western Ghats). The terrain in and around the village is undulating. A part of the village boundary overlaps with the taluka boundary of Maval and Mulshi. The village is on a sloping hillside, one side being flanked by a steep cliff. The highest point is about 3000 feet above mean sea level. The village lies in the catchment of the river Pavana and is situated on the banks of the backwaters of Pavana dam. Agricultural fields surround the landscape.
A number of streams flow down the hill slopes, forming the source of water for agriculture and fish that migrate upstream for breeding. The region receives heavy rainfall of around 4300 mm from June to September. Winters (from October to January) are cold with temperatures dropping to 40C. Summers (February to May) are hot when temperatures rise up to 400C.
The village shows the following landscape elements: human settlement and temples, agricultural fields, sacred grove along the mountain, a dense vegetation patch of privately owned plots and a patch of sparse vegetation (privately owned plots) which is allotted for cattle grazing and fuelwood requirements.
All forest land in the village is privately or community owned. The decision-making body in the village is the gram panchayat (formed of elected representatives of people), which governs the overall administrative and village welfare activities. There are three schools in the village. The village is supplied with drinking water through taps and has electricity. People also drink well water which has to be brought from a longer distance.
Ajeevali has a good semi-evergreen forest patch of 22 acres, a sacred grove traditionally conserved by the local people. A special feature of this grove is the abundance of fish-tail palms from which maadi—a popular local liquor—is extracted commercially. Interestingly, religious belief coupled with this activity of maadi extraction play a crucial role in the conservation of the grove and village economics.
The village population consists of a single community, the Kunbi Marathas, with agriculture as the main occupation. The tribal community of Katkaris that is mainly dependent on natural resources is found in the surrounding forests. Katkaris do not have a permanent settlement in the village. There is a small Katkari pada (a small settlement of Katkaris) in the neighboring village of Shilim. Agriculture is the main occupation of the people. Rice is cultivated traditionally here, the ambemohor variety being the speciality of this area. Other varieties of rice cultivated are kolam,saal, jire saal, indrayani, etc. Ragi is also cultivated traditionally on the hill slopes by the cyclic raab (mature and dried Strobilanthes callosus on selected hill slopes is slashed and burnt every seven years and ragi is cultivated). These two main crops are grown using only rainwater. But recently there is a decreasing trend in ragi cultivation, the very strenuous work involved in ragi cultivation being the main reason given by the villagers. Other crops cultivated include wheat, masoor, gram, beans, tur, vegetables, etc. However the other crops are grown on a very small scale due to lack of irrigation facilities.
There has been an increasing trend in the use of inorganic fertilizers for farming, although many farmers are aware about the negative impact of their over-use. It is a usual practice to grow crops and vegetables for personal or domestic use separately using only organic manure, and to use chemical fertilizers for crops grown for sale. The villagers say that organically grown food is tastier than that grown using inorganic fertilizers.
Nearly all the land in the village is privately owned. The sacred grove of Ajeevali is a common property resource owned by the entire village. In recent times, some additional privately owned forests adjoining the grove have been collectively dedicated to the temple by the villagers in the name of the goddess. Uncultivated private land under forest cover on the slopes is being rapidly sold off to people outside the village, usually from the urban elite.
The sacred grove is situated at an altitude of around 1000 mamsl. As one travels from the village to the grove, a gradual change in the vegetation is observed. Agriculture fields start adjacent to the habitation. Exotic species like eucalyptus (nilgiri), Thespesia populnea, casuarina, etc. are seen here on the bunds. In addition to this, other plant species like Bombax ceiba, Terminalia tomentosa, Holoptelia integrifolia, Eliodendron glaucum are seen in this patch up to a distance of about half a kilometre from the village. Next starts a vegetation patch with deciduous species and relatively fewer agriculture fields. Tree species found are Madhuca indica, Oidna wodier, Anogeissus latifolia, Bridelia retusa Hollarhena etc. In these are the scattered Acacia catechu patches. This degraded secondary vegetation indicates a considerable human and cattle interference. As we proceed further, a relatively wooded patch appears showing species composition of Erythrina suberosa, Mangifera indica, Lagerstroemia lanceolata, and Terminalia tomentosa. At an elevation of about 60 m from the village a predominant bamboo area is seen along a stream. Then starts vegetation dominated by Terminalia tomentosa. However, at this stage evergreen species like Caryota urens, Mangifera indica, Syzigium cumini and Pongamia pinnata can be noticed. This is woodland with considerable canopy. Thus the gradual change in the quality of the forest continues till the grove, where a sudden change in the vegetation is observed due to sharp boundaries of the grove.
The sacred grove shows the presence of densely wooded patches with species composition like C. urens, Mangifera indica, Atlantia racemosa, etc. The opened-up habitats outside the grove favoured growth of deciduous trees such as Terminalia, Bridelia, Grewia, etc. A heterogeneous plant community comprising pioneer species like Mappia foetida, Macaranga peltata, etc. is seen outside. As mentioned earlier, activities such as fuelwood collection and timber extraction are common outside the grove, leading to degradation of vegetation. The biomass of the sacred grove forest is significant (145 T/ha) as compared to that of the habitat outside
The grove is a densely wooded forest with more than 80 per cent canopy and can easily be distinguished from the surrounding degraded forest. Such a dense canopy makes the grove the last refuge for the animals like giant squirrel. Among other animals, Ajeevali sacred grove harbours diverse kind of fauna such as Hanuman langur, Malabar giant squirrel, barking deer, wild boar, leopard, porcupine and white-backed vulture, in addition to being home for a variety of other birds, insects, amphibians and reptiles.