28 September 2022

Save the forests

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Unsustainable biomass harvest, indiscriminate cattle grazing, deforestation and extraction of non-timber forest products by locals are slowly destroying the forest cover in Karnataka. If we don’t change our ways soon, the coming generations may suffer, warns Seema S Hegde.

The present reveals a lot about the future. The same is true for all aspects of life; take for example the forest. By observing the condition of today’s forests one can infer the status of future forests. Greater the species diversity and seedling density in the forest now, better would be the upcoming forest. Unfortunately, often, people overlook the role of seedlings in bringing up forests for the coming generations, and are under the wrong impression that it is always the big trees that make up the forest.

This perception might be because, except for a calamity like a forest fire, people do not see too many trees dying in one’s lifetime. However, eventually, trees die. Unless there are enough seedlings to bring up good forests, the present forests will degrade in a few generations’ time. But people do not realize the loss of forest cover as long as they are able to get enough quantity of biomass to meet their present agricultural and household needs!

Unsustainable biomass harvest

People living in and around forest areas harvest biomass (green and dry leaves, fencing material, and grass) from forests as agricultural inputs; it is considered the lifeblood of agriculture. In addition, they extract non-timber forest products (NTFP) like fruits and nuts for household use and sometimes to sell them commercially to supplement their income. Many times people unknowingly harvest biomass products in an unsustainable manner. For instance, they continuously lop trees or harvest NTFP by cutting tree branches which affects the growth of trees, limit the options for flowers and fruits, and ultimately affect regeneration. Also, excessive cattle grazing in forests leads to trampling of seedlings under cattle’s feet.

In today’s modern world, people either do not realise or choose to ignore the fact that their present harvest can hamper growth of future forests. But our forefathers did know this fact. The ancient wisdom was to practice a rotation system for lopping trees – a tree was lopped alternate years so that it got ample time for re-growth. Caution was also taken not to lop green leaves from trees which were either in flower or in fruit so as to facilitate seed dispersal. But, in the recent years, increased demand for biomass due to increasing population has forced people to give up ancient methods of biomass harvesting.

Does imposing restrictions work?

Researches conducted in Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka say ‘No’. Since biomass is an absolute necessity for villagers, imposing strict restrictions would lead to conflicts and theft. In fact, there are already existing restrictions imposed on the village community in the form of the ‘forest-land-use’ system.

According to the legal classification of forests as Reserve Forests (RF) and Minor Forests (MF), the community has no access to the former and a limited access to the latter, however, in reality; both are used as open access forests.

A study of RF and MF in four villages found a greater number of seedlings and species in RF on an average, and led to a thought – “are the restricted forests in a better shape?”. But the study of individual villages showed a less number of seedlings in the forests closer to habitation in three out of four villages irrespective of legal classification.

Furthermore, a greater number of lopping and branch-cutting instances were also noticed in forests closer to habitation which implies that people really do not care for the legal classification, but harvest biomass from the forests that are located at a convenient distance.

There are a few options to bring down the unsustainable biomass harvesting and also to bring down the extent of harvesting from forests. It is essential to control grazing, and, as an alternative, the Forest Department should develop and maintain a fodder plot in each village where cattle can graze, or, from where people can cut and carry fodder.

In addition, villagers should be encouraged to grow fodder in their land to stall-feed the cattle so that grazing in forests could be curtailed for at least a few months in a year. People should be encouraged to practice rotation system of lopping trees to conserve the existing forests, and should be motivated towards agroforestry in order to bring down their dependency on forests. Since the villagers are too poor to afford taking up these measures, they have to be coaxed into it by providing incentives or taking up subsidy-driven programmes.

Creating awareness

Most importantly, the villagers must be educated about the adverse impacts of unscientific biomass harvest and the need for conservation. It is essential to educate the NTFP harvesters not to lop trees and take away all the fruits.

During a recent interaction with villagers, it was clear that they were worried and a bit confused about the reduction in NTFP yield over the years, but did not seem to realise one of the reasons for that could be their harvesting method. Although the other reasons they cite like climate change and pollinator loss appear to be true, creating awareness seems to be absolutely necessary.

This could be done by the Forest Department officials by meeting villagers occasionally and making them understand the necessity to save forests so that the next generation can enjoy their benefits. Also, it is important to educate children in schools about biomass harvesting methods as they too harvest leaves from forests in the morning hours before leaving for school. Involvement of local NGOs in such awareness programmes could fuel the task.

Geographic Information System studies have indicated a significant reduction in the good forest (with canopy cover greater than 40 per cent) in Uttara Kannada district, but people have not yet realized it because there is still enough biomass to support their needs.
As it is not wise to wait for the villagers to realise what they are losing, awareness programmes must start soon. And, these programmes should take place on a large-scale in order to protect the present forests and pave the way for better forests in the future.

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