Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s Bhoomiyude Avakashikal is a riveting story that still finds relevance. The protagonist is torn between claiming the land that he ‘owns’ for himself, and letting animals and insects that inhabit the land enjoy everything the land has to offer. His short tryst with nature gets tough when the bats start eating his coconuts, thereby affecting his means of livelihood. So, with ample persuasion from his wife, he decides to shoot the bats. But in the end, the bats triumphs. Turns out, they inhabit the banyan tree of a temple nearby. They are believed to be reincarnations of ancestors of the believers. The people in the temple threaten the protagonist and his party and they return defeated.
This Beypore Sultan’s story is a fine example of the blending of culture and topography in Kerala. The land is rich with its mangroves, banyan trees, backwaters and forests, and they form an integral part of Malayali traditions. They have become indispensable in folklore and bedtime stories. It is this same tradition that saves the bats from death in Basheer’s story. Reading further into the story, we see that the tradition protects the environment. At a time when grave atrocities being committed against it, aren’t such forms of conservation necessary? What happens when religion and conservation are paired up together?
The answer might lie in the church forests of Ethiopia. One can safely assume that if there is a forest in Ethiopia, there is a pretty good chance that there is a church inside it. Most of Ethiopia is lifeless, greenery-wise. This is a result of the massive deforestation that took place in the last century. In such a state, church forests provide a possible solution and effort at conservation. Each church in Ethiopia is surrounded by a cover of green. These forests are believed to be a heaven on earth and the entrance to it is described as an escape from hell to heaven, thus adding to the religious beliefs of the believers. Now, the authorities are pairing up with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church, and are trying to use the church forests as a tool to rebuild the forest cover of Ethiopia, that earlier formed about 40% of the land there.
The Ethiopians’ effort at conservation are majorly dependant on the religious zeal of its citizens, and religious zeal isn’t something that Kerala lacks.
Every day we hear about incidents or actions that are fuelled by religious sentiments in Kerala. Why not try to divert this energy to another good cause?
Can’t we not try to replicate the church forest model in Kerala, thereby adding religious sentiments to the conservation of our environment. Such efforts are not foreign. Our sacred ‘Sarpakavu’ and sacred groves are treated with respect by everyone, thereby proving that Kerala has the potential to contribute greatly to the protection of the environment. The effort can also be extended to the protection of animals. Such efforts when driven by the religious beliefs of the people, add to the sanctity of their beliefs and help them to secure their future by preserving the gift that God has given them.
As time passes, such actions become absolutely necessary, specially in a world where capitalists have the upper-hand and the citizens have to take drastic measures to get the attention of the authorities. 2019 has certainly been the year of the environment, not in respect to actions taken to protect it, but in respect to the large-scale movements aimed at spreading awareness and at getting the attention of the law-makers. We still have a long way to go, with Greta Thunberg receiving a lot of backlash for ‘not smiling’, and none of the responsible authorities receiving any backlash for burning down the lungs of the world, for melting the ice poles, and for releasing toxic waste into the water bodies, thereby killing a large proportion of the aquatic life.
What happened with the Aarey forest in Mumbai is unforgivable. About 2000 trees were cut and the protesters were jailed, violating human rights and environmental rights. Unless there is a ‘religious zeal’ on the part of the citizens to revive our environment, we will pass into a point of no return.
We can certainly take steps. We have to take steps. Or there won’t be a floor to take those steps in. Let us replicate the sentiments of our ancestors, the believers in Bhoomiyude Avakashikal, the Ethiopians and the Bishnois, and build our very own ‘Kerala model’ of conservation.