'Wherever Indigenous Peoples Live, Forests, Groves And Mangroves Are Respected'

Outlook Traveller talks to Yon Fernndez-de-Larrinoa, head of the Indigenous Peoples Unit of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
'Wherever Indigenous Peoples Live, Forests, Groves And Mangroves Are Respected'
'Wherever Indigenous Peoples Live, Forests, Groves And Mangroves Are Respected'

Outlook Traveller talks to Yon Fern&aacutendez-de-Larrinoa, head of the Indigenous Peoples Unit of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

OT Are sacred groves more revered in certain countries like India, or is it the same everywhere else in the world
Wherever Indigenous Peoples live, forests, groves and mangroves are respected. Their cosmogony seeks familiarity with the sacredness embedded in mountains, water bodies and even savannahs. This is constant in the seven socio-cultural regions of the world and in the 90 countries where 476 million Indigenous Peoples live.
In Asia and Africa where a vast majority of Indigenous Peoples reside, this is crucial since it coincides with important forested areas. A majority of the remaining biodiversity today is located in the territories of Indigenous Peoples. This conservation of biodiversity depends on two factors the sense of holiness embedded in all elements of the environment and the fact that Indigenous Peoples' food and knowledge systems are capable of generating foods while protecting biodiversity.
OT Do you think forest officials do not pay equal attention to groves like how they treat protected forests
It is difficult to generalize, but it is observed that forest officers are often recruited following a formal education process that tends to minimize or overlook any sense of holiness in forests. Foresters are slowly realising that trees communicate in the forest through plants, roots and biochemical signals. Moreover, they are also starting to understand that forest systems are built around hierarchies of trees which perform different roles in the forest, from guardians to that of protectors. When protecting trees are cut, the forest system deteriorates in ways where the relationship between vegetation forms in the forest groves decay and eventually affect the health and sustainability of the entire system.
Most conservation schemes worldwide tend to displace Indigenous Peoples from the ancestral forests they have occupied for thousands of years. When this happens, their food, knowledge systems, values, and beliefs deteriorate. Forest officers then substitute both these systems with knowledge acquired in universities and schools. They are often completely detached from forest patches and unaware of the relations established since time memorial in the groves to keep them healthy.
It would be unique to come up with different models of conservation of forests that, instead of displacing Indigenous Peoples from their groves, support them in their guardianship role. A win-win proposal would be to secure their ancestral and customary collective rights to forests through land titles (read here FRA in the case of India).
OT How important are sacred groves ecologically and from the point of view of climate control
The relevance of groves for climate control and from an ecological point of view has been proved. It is not only well documented in terms of CO2 trapping but also terms of ecosystem services. There seems to be an agreement among practitioners, leaders and policymakers in this regard. The issue is no longer whether sacred groves play a critical role but how to conserve them. 
Conservation NGOs understand that the role of Indigenous Peoples in sacred groves is essential for their preservation. Policymakers are yet to be convinced, and unfortunately, they get convinced when it is late, and groves have deteriorated beyond repair. A better win-win solution for Indigenous Peoples and governments is possible and the UNFAO is committed to working in this direction.
OT Do you feel sacred groves should be managed by communities
Communities across the world are managing groves. Indigenous Peoples, through their collective rights, unique territorial management and know-how, are the great keepers and managers of sacred groves. In Indonesia, they use patches of forest to generate rain. In Thailand, there is a practice of tying children's umbilical cords to sacred trees after birth. Trees and groves have been living harmoniously with Indigenous Peoples' communities for thousands of years. Indigenous Peoples do not see themselves as detached from groves and often talk about them and groves as one joint community of beings sharing a physical space.

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