Rural settlement: The epicenter of sustainability in environmentally challenged India

A countryside…a village….a place of tranquility for many of the urban dwellers. Certainly, the greenery, cultivated field, openness, and mosaic of land parcels tend to mesmerize us. The scenery is even digitally eye-catching in Google earth if you zoom in on the human inhabited areas in India except for the big cities. The settlement studded traditional landscape in rural India often resembles “Starry Night” and is a real-life example of how entangled we are with our environment. The mosaic landscape with vast agricultural fields, water bodies, settlements, road networks along with the sporadic presence of natural forests represents diverse activities, interaction, development as well as destruction.

For any heterogeneous landscape, villages are the key components of the habitat and settlement network sitting at the core of multiple functions like agricultural activities, natural resource extraction, ecological functions, and socio-cultural practices closely tied with the landscape. In tropical countries, Like India, nearly 68.8% of people (Census of India, 2011) are living in villages and are directly connected with the multifaceted dynamics of human-nature interaction

                   The settlement studded landscape of northern India  
                                                                                 (Image source: Google Earth, eye altitude 100miles.)

in a low-key mode often not visually discernible but strongly felt. Till the onset of the industrial era, village life was truly revolving around natural dynamics. Industrial advancement completely maneuvered human society towards never-ending demand for earthly possessions and a new level of comfort which subsequently channeled towards uncontrolled natural resource extraction as well as intense landscape modification. Globally, a large volume of the literature suggests how commerce and consumerist economy stimulate deforestation, agricultural intensification, uncontrolled resource extraction, and change in socio-cultural perspective towards nature (Tscharntke et al. 2012; Cuaresma et al. 2017; Rasmussen et al. 2018).

Human Settlement: a part of biodiversity

In tropical countries like India, the rural landscape holds the key to biodiversity apart from the apparent grandeur of mountains, rivers, forests, and deserts, the physical components of the ecosystem. Rural landscape with different land-use practices viz., agricultural land with varieties of crops, agroforestry plantations, water bodies, grazing lands with all kinds of human activities (livelihood maintenance, social-religious-cultural practices, etc.) offers sufficient space for multiple organisms to survive and interact. Look around the agricultural field, it is the farmers’ choice to allow other plants to grow or faunal members to stay along with crops depending on the availability of the soil nutrients and water, benefits in pest control, and space requirement. Similarly, a plantation drive cannot afford to allow other species to grow other than the desired one due to a high stake in terms of economic return. In this background, the settlement stands apart from our attention. Here settlement means a typical representation of rural houses (ranging from 10 – 60) with varied spatial extent and accessories (viz, home garden, cattle sheds, common lands like worship places, water bodies, fallow land, village road, etc.). All these accessory places are usually with some basic vegetation like common fruit trees

Functionality at the village life. It has different forms, (a) – (c) supporting diversity; (d) – (f) multiple land use forms; (g) – (i) livelihood options and (j) – (k) religious-cultural legacy                                                                                                                                           Image: Rajasri Ray

(mango, jamun, litchi, sapota, banana), shade trees (banyan, pipal, neem, gulmohar), aquatic plants (lotus, lilies, water hyacinth, Azolla), roadside and fallow land trees (tal, date palm, eucalyptus, acacia, bamboo) and common herbs and shrubs depending on area and climate.
This basic plant assemblage in the settlement area provides support for local fauna viz, insect and bird populations, rodents, fishes and other life forms visible and invisible both. Moreover, a good number of household and professional items used to be extracted from natural resources, namely, house building materials (wood, soil, straw), daily needs (containers, furniture, cooking utensils), agricultural implements, medicinal plants, which in a way determine resource availability in the landscape. The list will be extended if we consider household (food habits, clothing, medicine, cleaning, and sanitation) and community practices (social, cultural, and religious rituals, traditional and local artistry, architecture) altogether.

Settlement influences a plethora of ecosystem services combining both tangible and non-tangible ones. However, it is difficult to assess this operating mechanism separately from rural livelihood as every nuance changes, evolution even destruction is attached with day-to-day decision making.

Ecosystem services provided by rural settlement  
                                                                                                                             Image: Rajasri Ray

Human intervention and ecological functionality in rural landscape

Anthropogenic intervention shaping the landscape in multiple ways from the early phases of the evolution of the human race, and landscape modification intensified with the origin of agriculture (Ray and Ray 2018). In India, green revolutions in the 60s’-70s’ not only emphasized the enhanced crop production but also replaced the inherent traditional sustainable practices. As a result, agriculture with its’ current practices like eradication of weeds, application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, heavy use of machinery, and unregulated use of irrigated water is oriented towards maximization of productivity but at the cost of surrounding ecosystems’ health. Similarly, other human mediated spatially explicit areas are waterbodies, plantation plots, etc. which offer less room for multiple life assemblages once anthropocentric demand intensifies.

Landscape homogenization at different level. (a) – (d) agricultural land in seasons and its preparation; (e) – (f) plantation and (g) – (h) aquaculture                                                            Image: Rajasri Ray  

In terms of biodiversity, the existence of diverse life forms and the plethora of services in a rural landscape is strongly related to how well they interact with each other and with nature. The different life-sustaining functions performed by organisms are the basis of functional diversity in the landscape. A functionally diverse landscape means multiple types of functions viz., self-and cross-pollinations, wind, animal, and mechanical mode of seed dispersals, different nutrient acquisition strategies, diverse growth patterns even competition, cohabitation, adaptation, and destruction at different scales. The web of activities makes a landscape stable, resilient, and productive simultaneously, exemplary of a sustainable system. Human is an integral part of this web not only as a viewer but actively involved as modifiers, creators and destructors. Be it agricultural modification, plantation establishment, settlement establishment or expansion, and development of amenities, the landscape is under continuous modification along with human civilization.

Globally, it is an accepted fact that a functionally diverse system is the prerequisite for the productive landscape (Diaz et al. 2007, Wood et al. 2015). Both consumerist and sustainable viewpoints are supported by the idea as it ensures diverse products as well as instills stability to the system. Human intervention in functional diversity is an active area of research and studies have been conducted in varieties of landscape structures (viz. grassland, agricultural land, sacred groves, plantation, etc.). These studies have pointed out how human activities make functional systems rich, sometimes redundant (the assemblage of members with similar working style) or homogeneous (wider presence of few selected members).

An uprooted tree means many homeless lives (image not in scale)                               Image: Rajasri Ray

Thinking of the “starry night” like rural landscape in India, where settlement dotted the plains, each of them seems like a functional unit in the background of vast agricultural lands. Moreover, a cluster of settlements in an area collectively contributes to maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services. The rationale behind the statement lies in the fact that the majority of the rural landscape is under homogenization at different magnitudes. The homogenization process stems from the monoculture of crops (vast paddy/wheat/maize field, fruit orchards, vegetable farms) and plantation drive, both commercial and social (eucalyptus, acacia, or roadside leguminous members), removal of unwanted plants, bushes, and extreme modification of soil ecosystems. The scenario is no different for water bodies or wetlands due to their commercial potential for fisheries and other economic products which prompt stakeholders to create an artificial conducive environment for selected species. Apart from stakeholders’ conscious choice, different operating mechanisms, like application of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, weedicide, external food resources (for fish), etc., also contribute towards homogenization. These activities also act as a selection pressure for floral and faunal assemblage, sieving the members for survival in the landscape. In this nearly homogenized backdrop, settlement acts as a relief where the consequences of the homogenizing activities are felt less severe. A small but significant portion of biodiversity exists in the home garden, community meeting place, sacred groves, village ponds, non-perennial water bodies, pasture lands, even in the surroundings of the deserted house. This small but important part of the natural world offers heterogeneity in species composition and functional traits which becomes an integral part of the functionality in the rural landscape.

Challenges related to settlement and landscape functionality

Though it sounds exciting, there are multiple challenges while implementing the concept of the functionality of the settlement. Apart from agriculture, settlement dwellers have multiple other interactions with the environment, the magnitude of which often fluctuates with the season, socio-cultural calendar, and demographic profile. Examples can be drawn from the seasonal fruit harvesting, festival, and household requirements which are mostly low to moderate level demands and replenished in course of time. The scenario becomes complex when larger plans are implemented with conspicuous spatial extent namely, road development, construction of public amenities, renovation of religious places. These works employ a bigger workforce, demands a longer span of activities, generates debris, and near-permanent changes in the environment. Often the toll is on the environment and ecosystem which looks negligible but collectively irreplaceable. Cutting a huge old banyan or pipal tree for road extension or construction of public amenities, may not have much impact on human life but it is unbearable damage to countless other life forms who are directly or indirectly attached to it. Uncontrolled and unplanned weeding along the roadways and other places in the name of cleanliness destroying the probable shelters for insects, butterflies, soil micro-organisms, and increasing soil erosion potential. Similarly, renovation of the old places often emphasizes architectural details barring environmental compatibility, which results in a big temple/mosque/church at the cost of existing open land/grove. Apart from these visually identifiable structures, changes are also evident in ecosystem components like soil and water due to poor waste management practices and unplanned sanitation systems. Waste generation in the rural settlement is undoubtedly lesser in quantity and variation than its urban counterpart but quite alarming when pulled together. Common practices like unplanned dumping of the household waste in open place and water bodies, mixing of organic and inorganic waste, excessive plastic disposal is widely observed irrespective of geographic locations. On a similar note, sanitation is a grave concern although countrywide program like Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan has been introduced in a full swing to abolish the open defecation practices. However, environmentally suitable treatment of liquid and solid waste at home and village level is still a distant goal in many parts of the country (Sengupta and Bhatia 2021).

The magnitude of the physical changes as mentioned above is deeply entrenched in stakeholders’ perception of their surroundings. Growing up amidst the environment, the rural stakeholders are aware of its existence value but contemporary lifestyle patterns and consumerist economy eclipsed that awareness. As a result, products from ecosystem services supporting livelihood get relatively more attention than non-tangible benefits which are ignored due to their apparent invisibility or spontaneous availability. The expansion of road networks and telecommunication systems revolutionized rural life throughout India. The constant interaction with the urban centers, out-migration for work, infiltration of urban lifestyle concept and exposure to diverse livelihood options tend to shift rural society from its locally activated modus operandi to be a part of the national or global network, consequently, the innate sustainability of the rural landscape is heavily compromised. The gross negligence towards active natural dynamics in the rural landscape slowly disintegrates the strength of the ecosystem to replenish and stabilize the natural world.

Reviving the sustainability in the rural landscape

India mostly lives in rural landscape. The rural area occupies ~75% of the country (with 6 lakhs villages, Census of India 2011), in comparison to 0.2% of the urbanscape (Cities with population over 1 million) (Revi et al. 2011) and 21.54% of forest area including 5.02% of the protected areas (WII database 2019). Therefore, to maintain the environmental and ecosystem health of the country the sustainability practices in rural livelihood must be encouraged. Rural settlements are more challenging than the other land use forms as human involvement is direct and action is stochastic. Multiple stakeholders imply multiple and variable challenges at different scales ranging from local to regional. In this context, village development plans play a major role. Schemes like Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY), Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA), National Rural Drinking Water Program (NRDWP) have recommended sustainable eco-friendly practices in housing, sanitation, and drinking water provisions to efficiently deal with environmental degradation and judicious use of natural resources in the rural settlement area (Table 1) (UNDP 2012).

In addition to these efforts, there are countless local traditional practices still prevalent across communities which need to be encouraged or revitalized (e.g. Garsadi tradition among Santhal community, Dongs in Assam among the Bodos, Virdha in Gujarat by the Maldhari for safe drinking water; house construction practices among Santhal, Oraon, Gond, Toda, Gujjar and Bakharwal communities) (Priyadarshini and Abhilash 2019). In general, the effort deserves participation at the grass-root level, strong community bonding, careful planning for adopting newer technology or facilities for household or community improvement, maintenance of green cover with sufficient diversity, promoting further research towards human-nature interaction by integrated disciplines like anthropology, sociology, political science, economics, environment, and ecology.

Settlement is an integral part of the rural landscape, therefore, an important component of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Both morphologically and characteristically it is different from typical land use land cover perception of the rural landscape so is in function. The contribution of the settlement to landscape functionality is often disproportionately high in comparison to major land-use formats, although quantitative data is very sketchy. The changes in the settlement are faster than the surrounding landscape, therefore, influence functionality at a pace that may doom the future of biodiversity further. To avoid the unavoidable, we have to aggressively promote sustainable lifestyle concepts with a priority on environmental health. Scenic greenery would be futile unless there is ‘true green’ embedded in its daily activities and advancement.

1. Census of India (2011). Government of India. (accessed on 20/03/2021)

2. Cuaresma JC, Danylo O, Fritz S et al. (2017) Economic Development and Forest Cover: Evidence from Satellite Data. Scientific Reports, 7:40678, DOI: 10.1038/srep40678

3. Dı´az S, Lavorel S, de Bello F et al. (2007) Incorporating plant functional diversity effects in ecosystem service assessments. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(52):20684-89. DOI: 10.1073 pnas.0704716104

4. Priyadarshini P and Abhilash PC (2019) Promoting tribal communities and indigenous knowledge as potential solutions for the sustainable development of India. Environmental Development.

5. Rasmussen LV, Coolsaet B, Martin A et al. (2018) Social-ecological outcomes of agricultural intensification. Nature Sustainability 1, 275–282 (2018).

6. Ray A and Ray R (2018) The Birth of Aus Agriculture in the South-eastern Highlands of India – an Exploratory Synthesis. Ancient Asia. 9, p.3. DOI:

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8. Sengupta Susmita and Bhatia Swati (2021) Real works begin now. State of India’s Environment 2021. A Down to Earth Annual. Centre for Science and Environment, 41, Tughlakabad Industrial Area, New Delhi 110062. Pp 241-244.


About Author



Rajasri Ray

Biodiversity at work: a glimpse into the world of Functional Diversity

A visit to the museum mesmerizes us with a fascinating set of collections; the same happens when we are in the botanical or zoological garden or seaside aquariums where a plethora of biota flaunts a glimpse of diverse culture, life forms or functions. Considering its expansion and variation, biodiversity is also comparable with these places when we mention about statistics like “374,000 species of plants” (Christenhusz and Byng 2016), “8141 species of amphibians” (, “10721 species of birds” (Clements Checklist v2019) and so on. Moreover, overly mention of the terms like “rare”, “endangered”, “threatened” or “endemic” species educate common people about the treasures of the natural world and its careful maintenance. Undoubtedly, this representation of the natural world through the lens of biodiversity ignites our imagination like the world as a gorgeous Persian carpet with intricate designs, colors, and patterns. Over the years, this emphasis on variation led to a large body of scientific research and documentation work thus unfolded interesting facts on species count, distribution, functions, and response towards the environment and biotic interactions.

We can also view this rich tapestry through various life-sustaining services offered by it. Let us think about water, food, shelter, medicine even fresh air, our list of debt towards nature gets longer and longer. For example, medicine is mostly of defensive chemicals (i.e. secondary metabolites) produced by plants or other organisms to resist the entry of unwanted guests in their system. Foods are stored products from plants or the organism itself which dissipates our hunger. Even the procedure of food production is a complex interaction among landscape, resident biota, and abiotic environment. Similarly, fresh air is ensured through photosynthesis, the food-making process in plants and perennial availability of water is ensured by the forest ecosystem. Based on this product based assessment, we can say that a species-rich system is worthy to maintain due to the overwhelming flow of products. So more species mean more benefits in terms of products/functions. This association between biodiversity and ecosystem function is commonly known as Biodiversity-Ecosystem Function relationship (BEF relationship).

The BEF relationship not only prompts scientific quest, but it also has a leading role in conservation agenda across the globe. The idea of the species-rich area, hotspots and productive landscapes all are mingling around this BEF relationship with an expectation to secure our survival in the long run. So the conservation work is not merely out of philanthropy, our calculation is very much in it.

As per the BEF relationship, the linear assumption that many species many services do not work every time. There will be redundancy if many members of the same clan have nearly similar types of functions. And, if there is redundancy there is no major problem if we lose one or two species. Accordingly, if we optimize the species number as per our requirement of services or natural world dynamics our conservation efforts will be efficiently streamlined. This function-based assessment of diversity is commonly known as functional diversity, which, in the true sense, monitor or assess how functionally diverse a system is. The redundancy in species function has some theoretical explanations. One line of thought is having multiple species with the same type of functions is beneficial for ecosystem stability or resilience. Loss of one or two members may compensate by others, therefore, no significant change can be felt at ecosystem functions (Functional Redundancy). Another view is revolving around the idea of the “insurance hypothesis”. The greater the variation in responses among the species in a community, the lower the species richness required to withstand the environmental odds. Therefore, whatever perturbations will come there will be always a few species who can effectively bypass the situation (Diaz and Cadibo 2011).

After redundancy, the next question is how a species-rich system (better to say function-rich system) manages to survive when there is a limitation of resource? Before answering, lets’ say a few lines about “niche”. The word niche can be explained as “a species’ place in the environment” i.e. its’ unique way to adapt with abiotic and biotic interaction, utilization of resources, survival strategy even modification of the environment, etc. Regarding resource use, we can say that a species occupies a definite place or niche in resource use strategy. It has a specific requirement, a particular method to acquire the resource, method to avoid competition, etc. In a multi-species environment, there are many possibilities 1) they may share same resources at the same place (niche overlapping) therefore high competition; 2) there may be random accession of resources with minimal or moderate overlapping (partial niche partitioning) or 3) random accession of resources without any overlapping (niche partitioning or complementarity) so to full use of the resources. A simplified example can be drawn from the garden or forest where different types of plants are available. When grasses and small herbs are busy to explore near-surface soil layers for their nutrition and water, trees extend their roots deeper to tap the not so easily available water. In that way, the competition for water is reduced as well as the utilization of the resources is balanced. This adjustment and optimization exercise are very much conspicuous in our surroundings. Think about diverse flower types both in structure and color which cater life-sustaining services to other depending organisms and for the organism itself. Flowers have an important role in pollination which secures the initialization of reproductive activities in the plant. In the majority of cases, the success rate of pollination is crucially dependent on how well the flowers attract the visitors for what they should be at their best in terms of appearance (i.e. size and color) as well as the availability of rewards (i.e. honey, nectar, etc.). To reduce the competition and optimal use of available resources in the show business, variation strategy has come to the scenario. Flowers differ themselves in terms of color, size, and structure even flowering time to fix a definite group of visitors for pollination activity (Figure 1). The diversity in fruit type also narrates the same story. It is for successful seed dispersal plants has to develop the best carrier (i.e., fruit) for luring predators to make use of them. Therefore, like predators, fruit also offers a diverse range of members varied in size (watermelon to berries) seed numbers (one to many-seeded) and fruiting time (Figure 2). All arrangements are for catering the requirement for different groups of depending fauna as well as securing their survival in the competitive natural world. For birds, from small hummingbirds to big hawk body size differs considerably which is an indication of their energy/resource requirement. Similarly, variation in beak structure hints at birds’ dietary requirements (Figure 3).

Biodiversity at work a glimpse into the world of Functional Diversity _CEiBa_Vol 3_Issue 1
Figure 1. A partial view of flower-pollinator network in natural world.
Upper panel: flower differentiation based on shape. A. Gullet B. Bell C. Brush D. Tube E. Dish and F. Flag. Lower panel: few well known pollinators in our surroundings. a. Bat b. Bee c. Beetles d. Bird e. Butterfly f. Carrion fly g. Fly. Source: Rosas-Guerrero et al., Ecology Letters, 2014, 17:388-400

All different root types, flower, fruit characters, body sizes and beak types with definite functions have a technical term, known as “trait” or “functional trait”. The proper definition can be “Functional traits are morphological, biochemical, physiological, structural, phenological, or behavioral characteristics that are expressed in phenotypes of individual organisms and are considered relevant to the response of such organisms to the environment and/or their effects on ecosystem properties.” (Violle et al. 2007). These traits are measurable units for functional diversity. Traits are usually considered as surrogates to assess ecosystem functions and their presence in an organism represents its long history of interaction with surroundings. As a result, traits are conservative in their character and expression which is imprinted in the organisms’ genetic makeup. Traits can be categorized as “response” (those which are the outcome of the interaction with the environment, e.g. life form, seed mass, root type, etc.) and “effect” (organisms’ impact on ecosystem functions and services e.g. biomass production, nutrient cycling, etc.). Like species as a unit in taxonomic diversity assessment, traits are used in functional diversity indices, e.g. richness (how much volume is occupied in the functional space), evenness (how evenly abundance is distributed i.e. whether all traits are equally present or the system is dominated by few chosen ones) and divergence (measure of the dispersion from the center of trait range). These indices help us to assess whether the  ecosystem is functionally rich or stable or under stress or showing warning signals of upcoming danger.

Flowering plants’ seeds are diverse in color, size and shape_CEiBa_Vol 3_Issue 1
Figure 2. Flowering plants’ seeds are diverse in color, size and shape. Source: Dr. Sabrina Russo, University of Nebraska, U.S.A

Globally functional diversity is an active area of research. Studies include Arctic Tundra to Amazon rainforest, interior forest to the agricultural landscape, land to marine life forms to explore the connections between organisms and their environment. Some examples can be  discussed here. Giam et al. (2015) in their oil-palm plantation study in Indonesia found that maintaining a mosaic of plantation with riparian reserves is beneficial for the local fish community. This combination of landscape preserves functional diversity which benefits local livelihood in terms of fish availability and supports ecosystem functions like trophic position fulfillment, energy flow, etc. Similarly, in the Neotropics, eastern Amazonian region, the research found that disturbance to the forest leads to the prevalence of small-seeded plants over the large-seeded ones. The reason could be many but the important one is the loss of fauna responsible for the dispersal of large seeds owing to tree logging. As a consequence, both species’ existence and ecosystem function (e.g. plant-animal interaction) are in stake (Hawes et al. 2020). Leaving aside distinct ecosystems, functional studies in human-modified or associated systems (e.g., agriculture, grazing field, sacred groves) reveal the dominance of certain traits (due to preference towards certain taxa), ubiquitous presence of generalist species and loss of species-specific interactions. Flynn et al. (2009) studied the impact on functional diversity under land-use intensification in the agricultural landscape.

Birds’ beaks are modified according to their dietary requirement_CEiBa_Vol 3_Issue 1
Figure 3. Birds’ beaks are modified according to their dietary requirement. A. Fish eater B. Chiseling C. Honey and nectar eater D. Meat eater E. Insect eater and F. Grain eater. Source: Google image

They pointed out a drastic reduction in functional diversity in  birds and mammals in comparison to species richness however, the trend was not distinct in plant members. According to them the drastic reduction in faunal traits perhaps due to loss of functionally distinct species at a faster rate than redundant ones. Ray et al. (2017) in their assessment of functional diversity in sacred groves find that the majority of the studied groves are functionally less diverse (i.e. functional homogenization) although they are species-rich in comparison to their surroundings. Moreover, groves support a limited number of pollinators and seed dispersers, usually cosmopolitan. This generalization owes to land shrinkage, altered surroundings and invasive dominance which acts as a constraint for forest based specialist pollinators/seed dispersers. Thus species profile does not reflect the true state of biodiversity. Stuart-Smith et al. (2013) in their global study on marine reef species found that the profile of reef fish functional diversity varies over geographic gradients is distinctly different from global trend in species richness. One of the main reasons is the locations, mostly temperate regions, where there are more even abundance distributions (i.e. a greater proportion of species have moderate abundances), species with their unique trait characters contribute significantly to ecological processes.    On the contrary, in species-rich tropics, despite having a large number of species and functional groups, it is due to the low abundance of functionally unique members their contribution to ecological processes is relatively weak. Likewise, many such examples can be drawn from elsewhere to establish the fact that functional diversity is a better predictor for the status of ecosystem or biodiversity than its’ taxonomic counterpart.

In conclusion, functional diversity provides an opportunity to know the importance of having so many life forms, their dependence on each other and the environment, their role in maintaining natural world dynamics and the potential to survive in recent catastrophic Anthropocene. This shift to function centric assessment of biodiversity is a timely approach to increase our in-depth understanding of biodiversity and our association with it. Hopefully, future research will show us the directions to face the challenges in cultural, ecological and economical forefronts of the planet.


Author thanks Sandeep Pulla, Balaji Chattopadhyay, and Avik Ray for their comments and suggestions on the earlier version of the manuscript.


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About Author :


Rajasri Ray


Rajasri Ray 
Centre for Studies in Ethnobiology, Biodiversity and Sustainability (CEiBa), Malda, India

Ancient trees: conserving living heritage for posterity


The Mallanimli Baobab of Orchha, India, the great Banyan tree of Kolkata Botanical Garden, the giant red woods of California, the ancient Ginkgos in China, the mighty dipterocarps in Malaysia or the eucalypts piercing the Australian landscapes, all these trees keep mesmerizing us not just by their larger than life presence, but also by their ancient links with our forefathers. These widely known woody giants not only instigate our romanticism about nature, but they also remind us about the past features of the landscape and peoples’ affection towards it. Historically, ancient trees in many areas are symbolic of socio-religious links humans had with nature. They are present in the forest, pasture, rangeland, valleys and agriculture lands reflecting local land use decision, and cultural profile of the communities. But, how to define ancient or old trees? There is no universal definition for ancient trees except few visual clues. They can be characterized by their wider trunks (compared with other individuals of the same species), and low, fat and squat shape; however, it could be specific to species, site and environmental conditions ( Their presence in diverse ecosystems across tropics and temperate indicate wider tolerance to environmental changes and acceptance to a large number of communities.

In India, scores of old growth trees are highly venerated in cultural and religious practices as evidenced in anecdotal resources. Moreover, their association with mythological stories, historical events, andSculpture depicting Bodhi tree social activities are widely covered in the literature. The celebrated examples are Ficus spp. (Ficus religiosa (pipal), Ficus benghalensis (banyan)), Mangifera indica (mango), Tamarindus indica (tamarind), Shorea robusta (sal) (Upadhyaya 1964, Gupta 2001) (Figure 1). Their antiquity mostly felt in religious institutions and sacred natural sites where they are an integral part of the religious architecture irrespective of diversities of faith. There are Stalavrikshas in temples of Tamilnadu, Sai Baba Neem in Shirdi, Maharashtra, Panchavati in Nasik, Maharashtra, great banyan tree at Natna, West Bengal, Pipal tree at Jain Dilwara temple, Mt. Abu, Rajasthan, Mulberry tree at Joshimath, Uttarakhand and countless other members occupy our religious landscape. Sometimes, these trees are places of worship or older than the formalized worshipping places. Graveyards and cemeteries in India also have their own component of tree vegetation too where due to various taboos disturbance is less and our green grandparents can survive (Mango trees in Park St. Cemetery, Kolkata, Chinsurah Dutch cemetery, West Bengal). Remember our childhood ghost stories. Old spreading banyan trees with their spreading branches, hanging aerial roots, and dense foliage, were favourable adobe for our rural area ghosts. Those entangled branches with sparkling fireflies and roaming bats at dark night were scary enough for any lone passerby. The daytimes presented more of a pleasant picture of such trees, in singles or clusters, may be ficus or neem, mahua or mango, Alstonia or bakula in serene landscapes, often nearby village ponds. Cumulatively these practices or beliefs act as a protective shield for old trees (Figure 2).

Leaving apart the literature, many of us would fondly recall the existence of old banyan/pipal/neem/mango trees in our surroundings which were not only our favourite playgroundAncient trees at protection near temple and graveyard but also a remarkable landmark for multiple purposes for all walks of people. Examples can be drawn from our daily life, a landmark for someone’s house or associated with places of our daily amenities like laundry, tailor, grocery shop, the fruit seller, bus stop, local market place etc. it may be a place where locals get together in evenings or rendering cool shade in scorching summer for humans and cattle. Except for places with religious and social importance, often they are found in private property as a symbol of family’s proud possession through generations, or in not so easily accessible areas like mountainous terrain. With the passage of time, many of them received the heat of development in the name of city expansion, road widening, power line or dam construction and wiped away from our landscape.

The common notion about rural landscape with its greenery studded with magnificent heritage trees, seems to be a feature of past in the near future. It is due to modernization of agriculture and rapidRoadside Acacia sp. plantation Compensatory afforestation program in rural landscape socio-economic changes we are losing our rural plant diversity which is often replaced by economically important species be it timber or cash crops. A pertinent example can be cited from road network establishment program. Aimed at greater connectivity and economic prosperity of even interior villages, the implementations are ecologically and environmentally insensitive in most places of India.  Large numbers of good old trees are cut without giving a second thought and as compensation, we are getting Acacia, Eucalyptus, Casuarina, Peltophorum spp. For rural folk, these trees are financially acceptable as they grow fast, people are getting money for their maintenance and even for cutting and selling (Figure 3). On the flip side, nobody concerns about the soil quality deterioration, disruption in nutrient cycling, adverse impact on local fauna. Even for the sites, where ancient trees are venerated by people and are protected, their surroundings are not supportive of their existence in the long run. Activities like trimming branches, curtailing root growth and water percolation by cementing the base, temple/mosque/house/shop construction etc. cumulatively affect tree health and its future generation.

Urban landscape presents a more complex scenario mostly with a negative notion. Intense urban housing and transport infrastructure, space crunch, heterogeneous community, multiple lifestyle demands and political wills are major drivers for green space management. Many a time, the spreading canopy and apparent clumsiness of the old tree does not fit with the urban criteria of green space beautification. Obviously, felling and uprooting of old trees disturb us, but their absence from our lives is barely felt owing to a lack of awareness on their role in nature. Above all, environmental awareness is still at its nascent stage in urban society, the consensus is often restricted to pollution, solid waste management and tree planting, where the number counts, the species choice depends on what survive easily and grow faster.

In view of this socio-cultural and spatial background, the obvious questions are what is the importance of having an ancient tree in a landscape? Aren’t we doing plantation, establishing green place and following other sustainability measures? To seek the answers, we have to explore multiple aspects of human cultural history along with evidence-based ecology and environmental perspectives. Ecologically, ancient trees are Pandora’s box for us though in a positive note.  Careful observation can reveal interesting sights of bats hanging inversely from the trees which are an important mediator of pollination and dispersal for many species, similarly, beehive may pose danger for some but they areAncient trees are supporters of many lives the backbone for agri- and horticulture, without them, big industries can fall apart (Figure 4). You see a flock of birds resting on the trees, perhaps they are the long-distance flying birds or migratory birds who use these trees as halting place in their journey. Look into the caterpillar, insects, ants, grasshoppers, scorpions these members need a very minimal resource for their survival, an old tree is like a grandfather for them from where they are getting food, shelter and congenial atmosphere for home. Last but not least important, a big old tree means storage of carbon dioxide (a major greenhouse gas) in different forms for many years, therefore, contributes to keep our atmosphere clean. One can argue that these services are common to all well-grown trees, but for ancient trees they are the time-tested long-term establishments under different climatic and anthropogenic scenarios, which definitely have experience values.

Looking into the cultural history, trees demarcate human’s association with a particular place. For many of us with a rural or semi-urban background, nature had played an important role in our mental growth during the formative years. The gigantic and spreading appearance of the old trees are responsible for both the feeling of admiration and fear which perhaps the first lesson to understand the mightiness of nature. Simultaneously, observing the flock of birds and their nests, beehives, bats, squirrels, caterpillar, ants and countless other life forms under the big umbrella of the ancient tree also teaches us the lesson of inclusiveness. Likewise, our socio-religious activities (eg. marriage, naming ceremony, social lunch, festivals, get-together, after death rituals) centered around the tree build up the connection between the people and tree, in a broader sense with nature. Many indigenous communities relate themselves with a particular tree, a sign of cultural identity for them. Example can be drawn from pimpleys of Maharashtra (pipal or Ficus religiosa), Gaadas of Karnataka (kadamba, Neolamarkia cadamba), Umariyas from Madhya Pradesh (umar tree Ficus racemosa), Dhanik clan of Madhya Pradesh (dau tree, Anogeissus latifolia), Santal from Chotanagpur plateau (sal tree, Shorea robusta). In brief, consciously or sub-consciously ancient trees are entangled with our lives.

Old trees are omnipresent in literature, arts, religion, traditional forms but comprehensive studies on their environmental existence are still underexplored. Except for documentation and public outreach materials they are almost divorced in our research domain. Studies on old trees to evaluate their role in ecosystem especially in semi-urban and urban landscape are in dire need. On the same note, environmental awareness programs focusing on these ancient members should involve and sensitize people about their ecological and social values. The living heritage, the band of our green and mighty forefathers, should be protected for our biological and mental well-being as well as for posterity. 


The author is thankful to Prof. M.D. Subash Chandran, Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES), Indian Institute of Science for reviewing the manuscript for its improvement and Dr. Avik Ray for his comments on the earlier versions.



  1. Gupta S.M (2001) Plant myths and traditions in India. Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Private Limited. ISBN 81-215-1007-4.
  1. Upadhyaya K.D (1964) Indian botanical folklore. Asian Folklore Studies 23(2):15-34.

About Author:

Rajasri Ray



The real life colourful tapestry of ecological sustainability and conservation

Sustainability, a widely used term in socio-political and environmental atmosphere, carries a long history of debate, a tryst with acceptance and decline since its inception. The general meaning of sustainability is “meeting our requirements without compromising the requirement for future”. There exists a plurality of definitions for sustainability but the idea became popular after the publication of Brundtland Report “Our Common Future” in 1987 and prioritized in First Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. As expected, it emphasizes on an inherent balance between contrasting issues like resource use and savings, long term slow benefit opposed to faster visually appealing outputs and anthropocentric vs. holistic outlook etc. However, the term sustainability is more meaningful and approachable to people if it is coined with specific discipline of interest like economy (economical sustainability), politics (political sustainability), environment (environmental sustainability) etc. This article will focus on the concept of ecological sustainability and its relation with natural resource conservation highlighting pertinent issues while human act as major driving factor.
Ecological sustainability is pertinent with ecosystem functioning, inter-relation among its components and existing dynamics. Ecosystem, when is in proper balance (although theoretical) can survive on its own by following certain principles like multiplication, resistance, resilience, adaptation and evolution. However, sustainability comes to the scenario, when any of the key components (here it is human) cross the threshold either by number or actions and pose a threat to others. In a broader sense it implies certain disciplinary / corrective / alternative measures to mitigate the probable hazards generated from beyond capacity harmful activities and secure long lasting normal operations from ecosystem.
Natural resource conservation can be considered as a subset of sustainability concept. Natural resource means any kind of physical and biological elements on earth which has definite role in satisfying human demand. It includes a range of agency/factors like omnipresent sun, air, soil, water to localized ones like forest, mountain, rocks, minerals even biota with specific activities. Use and exploitation of natural resources are very much driven by cultural, socio-political and individualistic demands. Moreover, uprising of city-centric civilization, industrial revolution and technological advancement make the process faster and more detrimental. To combat with the situation, different proactive and reactive measures have been introduced worldwide which can be seen in the form of treaties (e.g Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)), acts, rules and regulations (e.g. Forest Conservation Act, 1980, Govt. of India), guidelines (e.g. Sustainable sand mining management guideline 2016, , Guidelines for Human-Leopard conflict management 2011, Govt. of India.), protected area network, participatory activities etc.

Issues with ecological sustainability
In a broader sense ecological sustainability and resource conservation have common goal i.e., long term maintenance of natural resources and ecosystem functions and services. However, when these ideas are implemented in real life scenario several other equally important issues pop out intertwined with the core concepts. Taking ecological sustainability as an example, thorough understanding of the natural dynamics is a prerequisite here. Although much studied, our understanding of natural dynamics is restricted to visible members and their quantitatively measured activities in limited time and scale. For example, in a diverse agro-ecosystem, the visible parts are multiple crops, their human mediated management practices (e.g. sowing, manuring, growing, pest control, and harvesting), associated life forms (e.g. birds, insects, small mammals and even ground dwellers) and their activities (e.g. pollination, seed dispersal, food chain maintenance, nutrient cycling). The invisible/not-so-prominent parts are availability of nesting place for birds, effect of crop variation on pollinator communities, effect of pesticide on insects and ground dwellers, effect on ground water resource etc. The underlying natural dynamics operate with both visible and invisible parts at multiple time and scale which is hard to capture in a resource and time bound study. The problem becomes more diverse and interesting when stochastic mechanisms invade the system results into unpredictable and chaotic outcomes. Example can be taken for fire, cyclone, disease and human mediated mass destruction activities which are faster and widespread, sometimes even repetitive. The impact may be temporary so the system can get back to its original form, or moderate so there is coming back but with modifications/new forms, or devastative, so complete wipe out of the original members. To define or planning ecological sustainability in these cases is a challenging task if our understanding of basic mechanism is not deep rooted.

components of agricultural ecosystem

Apart from natural factors, anthropocentric attitude has a great role in shaping up the idea of sustainability and its implementation. Human as single entity or community both have decisive role in this regard. The individualistic approach seems to be less harmful but may turns detrimental if magnitude and technological advancement are considered. Examples can be drawn from numerous instances of privatization of natural resources where resource management strategy is governed by a handful of people and economic profit dominates the agenda. Similarly, community actions usually massive and difficult to control, but can be moderate if environmentally tuned practices can be implemented. In rural community, majority of the age old resource use practices are time tested and tuned with local environmental condition which help to maintain the balance between consumption and preservation. However, market invasion disrupted this age-old matrix considerably therefore, throwing challenge to develop new age practices based on contemporary socio-environmental scenario. The situation is different in urban area and its periphery where sustainability practice becomes more difficult due to ultra-diverse nature of the community in terms of behavior, culture, belief and life style. Therefore, optimization of ecological sustainability requires wider inclusion of stakeholders, flexible regulatory measures, incentive based practices and dynamic management strategy.

Issues with natural resource conservation
Compare to sustainability, idea of resource conservation, it’s principle and implementation are straightforward although multidimensional. The gradual change in resource conservation strategies from exclusive to inclusive format expands the scope for more participation, amiable solutions and social equity as evidenced from many studies. However, societal inclusion in the conservation diversify the scenario further. The positive side is environmental and resource awareness among people, wider acceptability of conservation agenda, proactive and reactive measures at various levels. The major constraining factor is human perception of natural resource management. Being a dominant component of the ecosystem, it is natural to maximize the profit out of it but this uncontrolled profit making business imbalance the entire framework, eventually leads towards zero balance.
Taking the example of species specific conservation programs, (tiger, elephant, primates etc.) it is argued that by conserving the large members their habitat and other associated life forms also benefited. Although the idea sounds logical, quantitative estimation of benefits on habitat and associated life forms are still scattered, therefore, impede us to make any sound conclusion. Moreover, species centric programs demand compromise from local communities in terms of livelihood, custodial and tenure rights which often subject to conflict with implementing agency. In habitat or ecosystem conservation agenda, often the focus is limited to the object of interest ignoring its association with surroundings. The statement can be further explained with the example of sacred grove conservation planning. Sacred groves are culturally protected forest patches usually present in semi-modified landscapes. Majority of the grove conservation works consider grove as single entity emphasizing on vegetation protection, reduction of disturbance etc. but hardly pay attention what is going around. Unless the link with surrounding area is not considered, conservation outputs are uncertain in terms of their longevity.

Sacred grove and it’s association with surroundings

At regional scale, resource conservation strategy is heavily influenced by economic and political interest. They are the determining factors for what to conserve, how much and where. Globally, majority of biodiversity rich areas come under productive landscape thus instigating more economic and political involvement of major players. The tussle between development and conservation becomes more intense and it is evident that biodiversity has to compromise for greater interest of mankind. The phrase “greater interest of mankind” itself is a subject of argument as in majority of cases this greater interest is restricted to a handful of people while others are mere spectator of it. It is an established fact that the political and economic wings of the development often crashed the low key environment friendly subsistence life style of the local peasants in the name of advancement. To date, the consequences of these activities are not that impressive as it was thought at the beginning.
In conclusion, it can be said that implementation of ecological sustainability in resource conservation and livelihood development is a challenging task. However, this challenging task provides more opportunities for innovative strategies, sensible involvement from society, and redefining our role as a component of ecosystem rather than controlling it.

Further reading:

World Commission on Environment and Development (1987). Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 27. ISBN 019282080X

United Nations 2015. Transforming our world: The 2030 agenda for sustainable development

Elinor Ostrom. 2009. A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems. Science  24 Jul 2009: Vol. 325, Issue 5939, pp. 419-422. DOI:10.1126/science.1172133