Meenakshi Kapoor | TNR
Two weeks ago, Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, Jai Ram Thakur, inaugurated the state-level Van Mahotsav with an aim to plant over one crore saplings in the state.
Tree plantation have been on a rise and helped in increasing the forest cover in the hill state. A report by the Centre on climate change concluded recently that forest cover in the state of Himachal Pradesh has increased by 25% between 1991 and 2015.
This has happened largely due to plantations.
Therefore, the tree cover has increased despite the rampant forest encroachments in the state.
Large-scale tree plantation drives and plantation under compensatory afforestation are often not in sync with local ecology and economy.
They serve neither of the two important purposes- ecological restoration or livelihood protection.
The result is an uptick in incidents of human-wildlife conflict and a blow to the traditional hill economy and livelihoods. We try to understand how?
Upsurge in human-wildlife conflict
In Himachal Pradesh, the ‘monkey menace’ is well known. over years, monoculture plantations of pine trees have replaced the fruit and nut giving trees of chestnut and rhododendron forests.
These planted forests do not provide anything palatable to monkeys. Hungry, they look to the crop fields and tourists.
In fact, in 2016, the Central Government declared monkeys in certain non-forest areas of the state as vermin, wild animals that are harmful to crops and livestock.
In Nepal, pine plantations have been linked with the drying up of natural springs and a decline in plant diversity.
Besides, in the cold desert of Spiti, alien trees don’t function like the native grasses and shrubs. They suck the little water out of the soil and deplete the water table.
500 kanal of forestland is proposed to be used for the Central University Himachal Pradesh. This land would then be compensated with afforestation elsewhere with probably fast-growing alien species.
But native trees hacked for development projects cannot be replaced with plantations.
They create resource-deficient areas that push animals out, towards human settlements and bring the two in conflict.
Threat to traditional livelihoods
A 2020 paper has demonstrated how 64 tree plantations carried out in 658 hectares of land in Kangra have caused harm to the pastoral lifestyle.
It has replaced fodder tree species such as garna (Carissa diffusa) and peepal (Ficus religiosa) with trees that don’t provide food for the livestock.
These plantations have also made it easier for invasive species such as Lantana camara to spread. By disrupting their migratory routes, plantations led to a decline in Gaddi households and migrator herds.
While the paper states that Gaddis have remained prosperous due to alternative livelihoods, it also acknowledges that vulnerable Gaddis may not have been able to do so successfully.
Hydropower construction caused eco destruction in Kinnaur
A 2020 study by Himdhara Environment Research and Action Group has found that not only hydropower construction has caused ecological destruction in Kinnaur, but the compensatory afforestation also involved the planting of exotic species such as Alianthus and Robinia.
Robinia, which is notorious for its invasive abilities, is reported to have already reached the farmlands, the study notes.
Adding to fragility of hills
Altered land-use due to indiscriminate construction, hydropower development and highway widening adds to the fragility of the hills.
The intensity of the recent ostensibly climate-induced disasters such as landslides and floods in the state are glaring examples of that.
Moreover, when forest diversions for these projects are compensated with incompatible plantations, they interfere with the natural processes and traditional livelihoods.
They leave the hill people with little to fall back on as they reel from the aftermath of one disaster only to be pushed into another.