To save India’s rainforests, we must first value them
The ‘development-at-any-cost’ model doesn’t work. There is a growing urgency to protect this ecological heritage.Updated: Aug 30, 2019, 09:55 IST
NASA satellites and astronauts aboard the International Space Station on Tuesday confirmed that the fire in Brazilian rainforests is the most active one since 2010, and there are enough indications that 2019 may see a record number of fires in the Amazon. Environmentalists have blamed loggers and ranchers for setting the rainforest alight to grab more land for agriculture, and Brazil’s president and far-right climate-denier, Jair Bolsonaro, for cutting funding to agencies responsible for preventing illegal land clearance.
The Amazon fire provides an opportunity to review the status of India’s rainforests, which are restricted to the Western Ghats, and the Northeastern Himalayas. The former have already lost a great chunk due to the expansion of tea cultivation, other plantations, and clearing of forests for dams. The largest compact of rainforests is now found in the Kalakad-Mundantharai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu. It is the forests outside such protected area networks that are majorly threatened by development pressures.
I spoke to scientists, environmentalists and civil society members who work/stay in the Western Ghats, and all agreed that rainforests face three kinds of threats today: Degradation, destruction and fragmentation due to development needs, and conversion of land for agricultural/commercial purposes.
The experts, however, don’t just blame politician and bureaucrats for their development push, but also those who live in the Ghats and the Northeast for not realising that the destruction of the rainforests would ultimately lead to the destruction of their lives and livelihoods. While the rainforest areas of the Western Ghats don’t have forest fires as we see in the drier Himalayan region, more development and more people entering these areas could change the scenario.
The State’s criminal lack of understanding of the importance of forests is astounding. A recent report in Hindustan Times says that four out of the six Western Ghat states have agreed to declare only 31,387 sq km — about half of what K Kasturirangan Committee had recommended — as ecologically sensitive areas (ESA) where mining, quarrying, and polluting industries will be banned. The Kasturirangan panel had scaled down the ESA area from what the earlier Madhav Gadgil Committee (2010) had recommended of declaring 75% of the 129,037 sq km of the Western Ghats as an ESA because of its dense, rich forest cover and a large number of endemic species.
Most climate models show that extreme rainfall events are becoming a way of life in India. This challenge, along with the destruction of rainforests that hold water and prevent run-offs, will flood cities and towns, as we have seen this year in Kerala, Karnataka and in the Northeast. Explaining how adequate forest cover can save habitations, Pamela Malhotra, who along with her husband set up India’s only private sanctuary, Sai Sanctuary, in Karnataka’s South Kodagu district, told me: “Despite intense rains this year, we did not face any flooding or landslide in the sanctuary. This is because the huge native rainforests suck up the excess water and also work as an umbrella”. Along with preventing flooding and landslides, rainforests, one must not forget, are also water towers, with rivers emerging from them. Tropical rainforest are also important because they sequester carbon dioxide, which is critical for world’s climate regulation, and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.
Malhotra, who has been in South Kodagu since 1991, also warned that rainfall patterns are changing due to the destruction of forests. A recent IIT-Bombay study has shown that evapotranspiration from the vegetation over the Western Ghats accounts for one-quarter of the rainfall over peninsular India, and that any reduction in rainfall due to deforestation would lead to warming of peninsular India.
While there are many suggestions on how to save India’s rainforests — implement the forest conservation Act in letter and spirit, reduce allocation of more land to commercial plantations such as coffee, declare rainforests as sacred groves (in the hope that the religious affinities will stop people from destroying them), and also involve local communities for their sustainable management — it will finally boil down to how much value the people and government attach to this ecological heritage. Unfortunately, at present, India’s Bolsonaros — the development-at-any-cost contingent — seem to be having a field day.