Policy of Spreading Monocultures Has Been Harmful for Himalayan Ecology


While any new large-scale deforestation immediately attracts attention, the more insidious change of species  often escapes attention and concern. However these changes can be very important. In particular if the share of broad-leaf species like the oak reduces significantly, then the soil and water conservation role as well as flood protection role of Himalayan and foothill forests will be lost considerably. In addition this will lead to depletion of springs and drinking water shortage for hill villages, as well as loss of precious fodder and compostable leaves for them.Last but not the least, monoculture forests of trees like chir pines which burn more quickly are much more susceptible to rapid spread of wild fires, particularly in conditions where water and moisture conservation is already reduced at least partly due to these monocultures only.

Serious criticism has been often voiced regarding the over-emphasis on selecting eucalyptus in tree planting campaigns in Himalayan foothills and Shivalik region. Since it is a quick-growing species and its timber and oil are required for many industrial uses, its plantation on a large-scale has certainly been a commercially profitable undertaking, but the local people cannot obtain  fodder  from it. Further it sucks away moisture and thereby depletes the fertility of agricultural fields. There is very little undergrowth which would contribute to biodiversity, soil and water conservation or fodder needs. Birds seldom build nests in this thin tree with small branches and less leaves. Much of this is true also for plantations of other somewhat similar trees like poplars some of them may have even lesser place for birds. Moreover ecologists have also drawn attention to the contribution made by these plantations to the desiccation of winds and the further  subsequent enhancement of recession of Himalayan glaciers.

Although it has often been claimed that the plantation of Eucalyptus and other commercial trees has been undertaken only as a part of the afforestation programme and not to replace the existing natural forests, several instances have been mentioned from time to time  in which natural forests were cut to clean the land for these plantations. In the terai-bhabar area of Uttar Pradesh ( which then included Uttarakhand) and Himachal Pradesh this certainly happened . In the Nahan Forest Division many Sal trees were axed to plant Eucalyptus. A forest officer who had been employed in the Ramnagar region of U.P. later related how under pressure from above he had been forced to cut Sheesham and Sal forests on a large-scale to make way for Eucalyptus.

While the monoculture plantations of foothills are largely seen to be the result of deliberate official decisions, the increasing spread of pine and other coniferous trees in upper hills, to the extent that these often appear as monocultures, is a more disputed issue. There is of course increasing realization that the dominance of chir pine in many forest areas in pines is harmful as pine leaves catch fire more quickly and the predominance of pines has led to more rapid and destructive spread of forest fires. It is harmful also for local rural economy as unlike broad leaf species, pine leaves do not provide fodder and do not contribute to enhancing land fertility. While agreeing with this, however, forest officials say that they are not to be blamed for this as this trend of pine dominance is a natural phenomenon and was  not created or promoted by them.

However at the time of chipko movement, or even before this, several activists in Uttarakhand alleged that the forestry department has been following a devious policy of forestry-management for reducing broad-leaf species of trees, most of them more useful for providing fodder to the local people than for providing raw material to big industry and promote the coniferous varieties of trees such as the pine , which are less beneficial and in some ways even harmful for the local people but provide valuable raw material for industry. Despite this understanding these activists took part in actions to save pines also as in many parts only these trees remained by and large, but at the same time stated clearly that the policies which create pine monoculture are harmful.

They said that in several oak areas coniferous saplings have been planted and then the oak trees have been girdled so that they dry up and die an early and unnatural death. After some years the oak trees vanished while the coniferous forest flourished. In  this and other ways massive mono-culture of coniferous trees has been fostered in the Uttarakhand region andas well in several other places.

This debate has come out well in some records left by the late Mira Behn, a leading disciple of Mahatma Gandhi from Europe who had spent several years in Uttarakhand. She questioned some of the well-propagated myths of the forest department. Her analysis is worth quoting in detail.

Myth 1 :       The Forest Department is taking care to protect the oak wherever it exists.

Mira Behn’s Reply :        During the 5-years that I lived in the Garhwal forests at 5 to 7000 feet altitude, I did not see the slightest sign of this protection, except in one small area where the department was anxious to protect a spring to provide water to some government buildings.

Myth 2 :       Nowhere has chir-pine been planted to replace the oak.

Reply :        I have seen many areas of pure chirpine in the banj (oak) zone. If they were not planted by the Forest Department, they were certainly cared for and thinned out by it. Planting is hardly necessary as the chirpine seeds itself and grows like a weed.

Myth 3 :       Banj-oak requires deep and fertile soil to grow and it is slow growing. Most of the southern slopes of the Himalayas are bare without a trace of soil left. Even if cost-considerations are ignored, lack of soil-depth and moisture will not allow the banj to prosper.

Reply :        Firstly, it is an exaggeration to say that most of these slopes are bare without a trace of soil left. Secondly, the deep, powerful roots of the Banj penetrate between the rocks. The Banj can grow on steep mountain ranges. It is the Banj that enriches the soil and fosters cool springs. Where it has been obliterated by chir, it will, of course, be a long difficult job to resuscitate it owing to the impooverishment of the soil caused by the hard resinous pine needles of chir, but ways will have to be devised if the floods are to be controlled.

Myth 4 :       The official policy is that the oak should be maintained wherever it exists.

Reply :        Had this policy been carried out during 25 years since I last wandered in the Garhwal forests, there would by now be definite development of banj growth.

Mira Behn has also written on this subject in an article “Something Wrong In the Himalayas”.

“Living in the Himalayas as I have been continuously now for several years, I have become painfully aware of a vital change in species of trees which is creeping up and up the southern slopes – those very slopes which let down the flood waters on the plains below. This deadly changeover is from Banj (Himalayan oak) to Chir pine. It is going on at an alarming speed….

“The Banj leaves, falling as they do, year by year, create a rich black mould in which develops a thick tangled mass of undergrowth (bushes, creepers and grasses) which in their turn add to the leaf mould deposit and the final result is a forest in which almost all the rain water becomes absorbed. Some of it evaporates back into the air and the rest percolates slowly down to the lower altitude, giving out here and there beautiful sweet and cool springs. It would be difficult to imagine a more ideal shock-absorber for the monsoon rains than a Banj forest.

“The Chir pine produces just the opposite effect. It creates with its pine needles a smooth, dry carpet which absorbs nothing and which at the same time prevents the development of any undergrowth worth the name. In fact, often the ground in Chir pine forest is as bare as a desert. When the monsoon beat down on these southern slopes of the Himalayas, much of pine-needle carpet gets washed away with the water and erosion invariably takes place, because these needles, being non-absorbent, create no leaf mould, but only a little very inferior soil, which is easily washed out from the rocks and stones…

“Because it is not a matter of deforestation but of change from one kind of forest to another, it is not taken sufficiently seriously. In fact, the quasi commercial Forest Department is inclined to shut its eyes to the phenomenon because the Banj brings them no cash for the coffers, whereas the Chir pine is very profitable yielding as it does both timber and resin…”

“It is not merely that the Forest Department spreads the Chir pine, but largely because the Department does not seriously organise and control the lopping of the Banj trees by the villagers for cattle fodder, and as I have mentioned is glad enough from the financial point of view to see the banj dying out and the Chir pine taking its place. When the Banj trees get weak and scraggy from overlopping, the Chir pine gets a footing in the forest and once it goes up and starts casting its pine needles on the ground, all other trees die out.”

The destruction of oak trees to make way for the conifers has been also emphasised in the report of the Kashmir-Kohima foot march . This report was prepared by leading chipko activist Sunderlal Bahuguna and those of his colleagues who accompanied him for various stretches in the course of his very long foot march from Kashmr to Kohima during 1981-82.

“We cannot forget the painful sights of destruction of oak forests to plant conifers. With its excellent qualities of soil-building, water conservation and supplying fodder, fuel and agricultural implements, all villagers call the oak a Kalpavriksha. The sweet cold water of oak roots has been praised in hill folk songs. But the destruction of oaks to plant conifers started with the commercialisation of forests, and continues unabated in spite of U.P. State Government’s pious declaration to protect this species. We could see in Kansar compt. 5, Chakrata Division stumps of big oaks. These were felled to plant Deodar and Kail. 80 Hectares of oak area in Rari Uttarkashi in the catchment area of Jamuna was planted with deodar during the IV Five Year Plan. During 1980-81 20 Hectares of oak forest was cleared to plant deodars in Khurmola Compartment 8 of Uttarkashi division. When we enquired how it happened, the reply was what could the poor Ranger Saheb (Range Officer) do, when the target to plant commercial species was fixed from Lucknow the state capital.

“Oak forests were clear – felled to raise nurseries in Rari area, Yamuna Division and in Banyadhar Nursery of Barontha Range of Chakrata Soil Conservation Forest Division. Besides other species, nursery of chir-pine is being raised on this land.”

“Construction of motor road has taken a heavy toll of precious oak trees. The felling of trees was not confined to the road side, but to other neighboring areas. The greedy contractors got a golden opportunity to fell trees for char-coal and made huge amounts of profits which was shared with all entrusted with the protection of these trees. On the complaint of the local people an enquiry was made in Diwarikhol area of Uttarkashi district, but nothing happened.

“At Gauraghati which has been connected with Chakrata by a newly constructed motor road we could see huge piles of oak wood and charcoal bags. The felling of trees had started three years ago. Now though the dried trees are being auctioned from this area. But the villagers say when dried trees are sold away we are compelled to fell green oaks to meet out demand of wood fuel.

“How the destruction of oaks affects the local economy was made clear to us by the residents of Lakhamandal village. After the commercial exploitation of Gauraghati oaks, they are experiencing scarcity of water for irrigating their potato crops during the summer. This is the common experience in the hills that there has been a decrease of 50 to 75 per cent in the water sources during the last 80 years. The other hazard is the acceleration of soil erosion along the landslides. We could see this in Kansar compartment 5 of Chakrata division.

Speaking about similar trends in the terai area, this report says, “…. after independence 92,000 hectares terai forest was allotted for cultivation. These areas were buffer to the protected forest in the hills. After the disappearance of the buffer zone the heavy pressure of grazing shifted to the protected forests. In the meanwhile, there was basic change in the land use policy. The forests, which were previously managed to meet the local demands of fodder and timber, were changed into commercial forests and stress was laid on growing the species of industrial importance.

“There was a marked change in exploitation pattern also. It was 3,674 cubic meters sal and 2,392 cubic metres of miscellaneous species per annum from 1928-29 to 1949-50 but from 1950-51 to 1961-65 it was 608 c.mt, sal and 9,390 c.meters of miscellaneous species per annum. The mixed forests were clear felled to grow eucalyptus and other species of industrial value. These plantations were raised mainly to feed paper industry.

“Plantation of eucalyptus has radically changed the ecological conditions of Tarai area…. The water level has gone down near plantations, there is no water in the hand pumps. Many streams have dried up. The forest department has admitted that “under eucalyptus plantations there is practically no cover for the wildlife to hide under and also year after year control burning of leaves nothing for the herbivorous animals.” (Working plan of Tarai-Bhabar 1975-76 to 1984-85).

“Besides wildlife there has been marked decrease in bee swarms. We could see 32 beehives on a single siras tree between Chakarpur and Khatema and 15 hives on a semal tree between Chorgalia and Sitarganj Jail farm. Bees prefer to live on old trees with wide branches. We were told about two siras and Gular trees near Jalpainia nullah in Barakuli range of about 200 years housing 80-85 beehives. Though eucalyptus flowers provide food to these (the honey is not good) but no place to build hives. The decrease in bee-hives during the last ten years has been by 50 per cent.”

Many hazards implicit in creating conifer monocultures have been mentioned from time to time. In this context it is pertinent to draw attention to the widespread destruction of trees caused by windstorms in the forests in the Himalayas which has exposed the inherent weakness and susceptibility of such mono-cultures.

The following note of Richard St. Barbe Baker (taken from his book ‘My Life, My Trees’) regarding a massive destruction of pine trees in a forest of England will explain this point better than anything else. “We inspected the tree roots to read if possible the cause of this disaster. We found that most of the trees felled in the storms were approximately forty years of age when root competition had become severe. It is a fact that the hair roots of pines are charged with an acid sheath, nature has provided this to help dissolve rocks and enable the roots to penetrate. One often sees how the root of a pine, by the sheer force of expansion, has succeeded in splitting a rock, emerging a foot or so below the point of entry. Imagine myriads of small roots competing with each other at the same level for growing space. When this happens an acid pan is formed at the level of the greater root competition. For the health of pines there must be a mixture of broad-leaved trees so that leaf fall can provide food for the roots of the conifers.”

Last but not the least, one must note the higher inflammability of pine leaves and the presence of resin in it which after extraction of this sap by inserting iron bars is used in industries like turpentine oil. This together with the much lesser water and moisture conservation capacity of chir pines creates conditions of rapid spread of forest fires. This does not of course mean that we should not strive to protect the Himalayan chir pines. We should of course protect them, as chipko activists also did, but at the same we should emphasie the importance of mixed forets with presence of adequate number of broad life species along wirh coniferous species.

Hence the importance of avoiding monocultures and encouraging mixed forests by providing adequate support for broad leaf species like the oak is very important. The regeneration of broad leaf species particularly the oak should be encouraged as a campaign of people helped by the government.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children and Planet in Peril.

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