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Civic Sanskriti: The new ABCs of plantations and maintaining green areas

Two recent news items related to plantations caught my attention
By Sanskriti Menon
PUBLISHED ON MAR 02, 2021 01:03 PM IST

Two recent news items related to plantations caught my attention. The first concerned a study by Delhi-based organisation LIFE (Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment) that shows several cities have not done urban plantations in accordance with air quality plans. The second news was of forest fires in and around Pune, worsening air quality.

These reminded me of discussions initiated a couple of years ago among researchers, NGOs, and the PMC for biodiversity conservation, especially in the Biodiversity Park. The question of whether to plan for forests or grasslands on Pune’s hilltops and slopes had come up. The importance of these sites for water recharge was also noted. A mosaic of grasslands on the hilltops and slopes, and shrubs and trees along nallah courses had been broadly agreed as appropriate for biodiversity conservation and water recharge. What to do with the existing exotic species plantations on hills that suppress local species, had remained an unresolved important question.

What species to plant and where, and whether to plant trees at all in some localities? Answers to these questions relate to Air Quality, Biodiversity, Climate Change, and a few more words beginning with other letters of the alphabet, such as Ecosystems, Equity, Forest fires, Livelihoods and Water.

The National Clean Air Programme recommends plantations around hot spots of pollution. The Central Pollution Control Board guidelines for green belts consider the nature of pollutants from industrial areas, roads and transport. It lists pollution-tolerant tree species and those that help remove pollutants from ambient air.

Pune’s Bicycle Plan includes roadside vegetation guidelines. It recommends trees species for shade, as well as grasses, herbs and shrubs that help reduce road-side dust, often neglected in urban plantation plans. It also lists characteristics to watch out for and avoid, such as tree species with weak branches that may fall on road users or those with allergenic pollen.

The issue of forest fires (uncontrolled), and controlled annual burning of grasslands is more complex. Urban dwellers concerned about tree plantations for air quality, biodiversity (of tree species) and climate change (to sequester carbon), might overlook the needs of community groups directly dependent on a different biodiversity mix.

Dr Nitya Ghotge, veterinarian and director of Anthra, an organisation promoting sustainable farming and livestock rearing, reminds us that hill slopes in and around Pune were once village commons where livestock grazed. Both fire and grazing, criticised from a certain environmental perspective, are actually sound grassland management techniques when used carefully. They support and maintain grassland landscapes and the biodiversity these landscapes harbor.

Dr Erach Bharucha, surgeon and founder of the Institute of Environment Education & Research at Bharati Vidyapeeth, says that while vegetation burning has health impacts, only considering air quality perspective misses aspects like the basic survival of communities who depend directly on grassland ecosystems.

As summer approaches, fodder for cattle, sheep and goats is hard to find especially in the western deciduous regions of Western Ghats. Crop residue is all but over and natural vegetation has dried out. When dry vegetation is burnt, it quickly produces a flush of grass that provides some food for livestock. Dr Bharucha adds that tribal farmers say that vegetation burning releases nutrients by soil heating and kills soil pests. Soil scientists should study such traditional knowledge, he suggests.

There is scientific evidence that Pune region had savannah grasslands with sparse trees especially fire-resistant species like Khair, Hivar, Babhul, Tendu, Ain and Charoli. Grazing and naturally occurring fires are two phenomena maintaining grassland landscapes as evident from a part of Vetal hill.

We also need studies and documentation of current landscape changes. For example, we don’t know if fires around Pune have increased or decreased over the last decade with increased urbanisation. Dr Shamita Kumar, principal, BVIEER, suggests that GIS and time-series studies would be useful to track such changes, and be useful in planning plantations, and forest and grassland conservation. It’s also important to draw out the learnings from restoration projects in the Sahyadris by the Ecological Society as well as by community groups.

Satish Awate, programme director, Biodiversity Programmes at Centre for Environment Education says that plantations by municipal authorities and Forest department should consider science and community practices. Satish recommends localised planning of plantation activities, in consultation with citizen’s groups, communities and scientists.

It’s time to work out the new ABC of plantations and maintaining green areas, to be more inclusive and better-informed, with ecology and equity in mind.

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