Category: Countryside (page 1 of 2)

India’s Revenant Forests

Leonardo DiCaprio may have a lesson or two for India’s ministry of environment, forest and climate change. The Hollywood actor, as protagonist of a 2015 Oscar-winning blockbuster, plays a character who is ­att­acked, gravely wounded and left for dead, but who nevertheless recovers to live on as The Revenant of the film’s title. Now, ­imagine a Bollywood version: with an actor like Naseeruddin Shah in DiCaprio’s role, acting alongside co-stars like Ratna Pathak, Nandita Das, Rajkummar Rao and other ­talented artistes playing complex ­character roles. And imagine now that Shah plays a character who is beaten, mortally wounded and left for dead, but comes back to life. Except, in this Indian version, it is not the wounded and recovering Shah himself, but someone altogether different: say, a Salman Khan or an Akshay Kumar who ­returns with Kangana Ranaut in tow, both hero and ­heroine predictably hogging almost every scene. Would the latter character, ­co-stars and film still be a revenant representative and worthy of the original? Or would it just be a completely artificial ­replacement, ­bearing no res­emblance to the original in ­appearance, artistry or talent?

India’s environment ministry appears to fav­our the latter form of transformation if we go by recent trends affecting India’s forests and other natural ecosystems. Take, for instance, the plans to bring so-called development to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (A&N), which involve destruction of about 20,000 hectares of forest. The A&N forests are ecologically unique and rich in biodiversity, with a large number of species, many of which are endemic and found now­here else in the world. To offset the kind of damage that will result from such projects, India has a system of compensatory afforestation that involves regrowing an equivalent area of forests in non-forest land or double the area in degraded forest land. The compensatory afforestation planned for A&N inv­olves about Rs 1,480 crore to reg­row forests in…wait for it…Madhya Pradesh!

For the destruction of biologically rich forests such as these in the Andaman Islands, the compensatory afforestation will be carried out in Madhya Pradesh!

Thus, biologically rich forests will be ­des­troyed in a unique island ecosystem and a false replacement—probably using just two or three totally inappropriate species not native to either ecosystem—will be ­created over 2,000 km away in the middle of India in a totally different bio-climatic zone. Instead of the beautiful performances and uplifting music in the original movie, we will be treated to the usual tired masala and inevitable item number in the replacement.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of India’s compensatory afforestation programme, helmed by the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority or CAMPA. The CAMPA programme is founded on the belief that natural forests and other ecosystems can be severely damaged or destroyed in one place and then regrown elsewhere using money shelled out by those implementing the destructive projects. In 2018, a fund of Rs 66,000 crore had accrued over the previous decade from payments for forest destruction in the belief that the ­des­troyed forests can be ‘compensated’. In August 2018, the Central Government ­notified rules under the 2016 Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act to unlock these funds ostensibly for this purpose.

The compensatory afforestation law is now channeling a huge pot of money for aff­orestation through state bureaucracies and private parties and businesses. But it is a fat­ally flawed programme suffering from at least four major problems: planting trees in the wrong places (including grasslands, wetlands and deserts), planting the wrong tree species in forests, planting just one or a handful of tree species, and planting in lands of local and indigenous people without their consent and involvement. Almost all compensatory afforestation involves one to all of the above damaging practices.

Monoculture tree plantations are not forests: A panorama shot of a teak (Tectona grandis) plantation (Left) and moist-deciduous forest (Right) in a protected area in Karnataka, India. Photo by: Anand Osuri, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Compensatory afforestation in principle and practice is regressive, but it is now a programme with deep pockets and a greatly enlarged potential for wreaking more ­damage to India’s forestlands and non-­forest community lands and commons. It needs to be urgently replaced by an appro­ach that recognises the importance of ­retaining all existing natural and undisturbed forests, protecting non-forest ecosystems such as deserts, grasslands and savannahs from ill-advised tree planting, and reviving the roles and rights of local communities and gram sabhas. Where ­forests have been alr­eady degraded or des­troyed, there is a need to change focus from ‘afforestation’ to ‘ecological restoration’.

Ecological restoration has been defined as “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed”. Key to this is the concept of (‘assisting’) natural processes of recovery rather than installing by brute force a replica or replacement ecosystem. It involves working with nature rather than against nature. Restoration involves bringing back the original ecosystem—not just forests, but also sav­annas, grasslands, wetlands or deserts. Restoration requires careful attention to landscape, the right species mix, and appropriate methods that minimise further disturbance, foster natural recovery, and employ ecologically informed interventions.

Ecological restoration fosters recovery of diverse species native to specific ecosystems by working with nature.

Restoration allows the recovery of species native to local ecosystems at a site-specific level, not forcible planting of saplings from some bundled list of species blindly applied to entire states or regions. It would also req­uire stripping away the bureaucratic obsession with infrastructure creation and concretisation (check dams, trenches, waterholes and such), and replace it instead with minimising alterations to landscape and terrain to nurture a greater degree of naturalness. It mandates a close focus on natural vegetation types and how much of each type remains and in what condition, rather than on generic measures of green cover, forest cover, tree cover or density classes that is the present obsession of the forest bureaucracy. Finally, ecological restoration offers an ­opp­ortunity to empower local communities and stakeholders as participants, because local people are far more knowledgeable and intimately connected to nature than the ­forest bureaucracy, external contractors or private sector plantations will ever be.

Still, the larger question remains: can an ecosystem such as a river or a forest—once damaged by destructive development, ­def­orestation or pollution—be helped to ­rec­over to its original state or some reasonable approximation of it? Can the diverse set of native species, the unruly, wild character of the original ‘jungle’ or river or grassland be brought back? Contemporary research ­suggests this can happen only partially, and only when ecological restoration is carried out with a great deal of care and effort. And that is an additional reason to be far more cautious than we are at present with how we treat and manage the little that is left of India’s forests, rivers and other natural ecosystems.

This article first appeared in Outlook Magazine on 14 June 2021.

Citizens of the Earth

The scarlet dome erupts over the rainforest canopy. On this cool, clear January morning in the mountains, the tree emerges like a flaming island in an ocean of green. The leafless branches hold fiery red blooms on twigs lined with thousands of thorns, like flowers strung on razor wires. In resplendent minority, the deciduous tree stands flamboyant over the evergreens, whose flowers, if there are any, remain modestly concealed among millions of leaves. The splayed branches of the great emergent twitches with movement and pulses with song like the flicker and crackle of sparks in a fire. The silk cotton tree, Bombax ceiba, under which I stand, is alive and alight. I sense a portent of something unexpected.

Bombax ceiba flowering in the Anamalai Hills (Photo: Srinivasan Kasinathan & Ganesh Raghunathan)

Across the backwaters of the Lower Sholayar or Ambalappara dam in neighbouring Kerala, across an imaginary border drawn on the waters of a river named for the rainforests, from the midst of a vast forest tract, looms the red dome of another silk cotton tree. From the Tamil Nadu side, peering through binoculars, I see life flickering on that far tree’s branches. Called ilavu or elavan by people—including Kadar forest dwellers—on either side of the border, the trees seem rooted to place. And yet they are linked by tendrils of language and life that I barely begin to discern.

Red silk cotton tree

Shrill squeals pierce the morning air and I look up. A dozen jet black birds with golden leathery wattles on their heads frolic among the flowers, dipping their orange beaks into the red corollas. Hill mynas. Sated after a swig of sugary nectar or disappointed that someone got there before them, the birds fly from flower to flower in a squeaky, whirring beat of wings. They are not alone.

Bell-like clangs announce the arrival of a pair of racket-tailed drongos, dressed in glossy black and sporting audacious tails tipped with wires and black spatulae. I barely glance at them before a buzzing see-see-see draws my eyes to a little green blur whizzing onto a neighbouring twig. The vernal hanging parrot perches, pulls his tiny matchstick leg over his wing to scratch the side of his face, his wings falling partly open to reveal a red rump set against his parrot green. After his scratch, he sidles over to the nearest flower. Below him, on a stout branch, a thrumming mass of rock bees covers a large U-shaped pendent hive. On a nearby branch, a jungle-striped squirrel walks gingerly over the thorns nosing and nibbling at flowers en route. And there’s more. A flourish of black and yellow arriving with a screech: golden oriole. A flutter of reds and olives: common rosefinches, males and females, migrants from the Himalaya and further north now here to make the best of winter blooms and seeds. A tree top violinist fiddling fast and high pitched: a tiny purple sunbird singing his heart out, the energy of his notes falling like rain around the tree. A party of birds winging back and forth: Malabar starlings, leafbirds, and bulbuls. Darting about, chattering, diving for a drink from deep red cups, they even look like they are having a party.

It’s a party thrown by the silk cotton trees. Come, partake of this prolific nectar, they seem to say—a generosity hiding an agenda of its own. For when the birds and bees, and, too, the bats by night, visit the flowers, they are dusted with golden pollen to carry onto flowers of other silk cotton trees, ensuring cross-pollination. Each flower produces over eight million pollen grains from its ring of about eighty to hundred anthers, but pollen falling on the stigma of the same flower or of another flower on the same tree will fail to result in fruits. For reproduction, cross-pollination is vital. With crimson cup offerings, the trees entice animal vectors to do the job for them.

Red silk cotton in full bloom

Weeks later, by April, many of the cross-pollinated flowers—those not eaten by macaques or dropped onto the forest floor to be munched by muntjacs—form oblong capsule-like fruits that are silk-stuffed cocoons of seeds. The capsules burst open in the hot, dry weather, letting the seeds, each with its little wispy parachute, fly with the winds. Silky white carpets form in the forest floor in the vicinity of silk cotton trees just as the pre-monsoon thunderstorms arrive to trigger the germination of the lucky seeds downed in the right spots. On the branches, new leaves sprout and splay their fingers to catch the light as the trees flush green again in sync with the rains, as if following a ticking clock of the spinning earth.

My thoughts swing to other flowering silk cotton trees that I had stood under across India in years past. I recalled the stately semal trees in Teen Murti Bhavan, New Delhi, welcoming birds of astonishing diversity in the national capital. I thought of the trees in the far northeastern forests of Dampa in Mizoram, bordering Tripura and Bangladesh. There, one January, I had watched birds feasting on nectar on a tree spiring over bamboo forests. Across another river and another border, this one not just imagined in maps but sliced on land by ugly fence and razor wire, were other silk cotton trees, whose pollen would be carried by birds and bats and bees and whose seeds would fly with the wind across states and nations. There, the tree was called bochou by the Bru, sinigaih by the Chakma, and phunchawng by the Mizos at that territorial trijunction.

It struck me then how absurd it is to affix territorial tags to these trees: could the silk cotton trees be Tamilian or Keralite when all that separated them were seamless river and air? Could the tree in Mizoram have sprouted from a seed blown from Tripura by the winds of time, growing over decades to stand tall and free? Would we deprive it a record in our national registry of trees because it was spawned by a pollen grain winged over from Bangladesh by an unwitting myna or starling? The trees remain rooted but are not isolated, immobile individuals. They are active, mobile, and complex living beings connected to hundreds or thousands of other plants and animals, in what the novelist John Fowles once described as a ‘togetherness of beings’.

At the turn of every new year, as silk cotton trees erupt in red across India’s forests, they signify neither flags of territory nor salutes to freedom. They celebrate a togetherness of beings who know how to live as citizens of the earth.

On 8 March 2020, while the citizenship protests in New Delhi were ongoing, an edited version of this article appeared under a different title in the Indian Express Sunday Eye.

The Secret Lives of Trees

On the 10th of November 2019, I was at the Bangalore Literature Festival in a session with Harini Nagendra and Nirupa Rao. The session, The Secret Lives of Trees, offered us an opportunity to talk on a subject dear to each of us: trees.

Harini and Seema Mundoli’s book, Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities had hit the stands last year, generating widespread interest on the trees among us. Nirupa, who’d earlier worked with Divya and me on Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats, had had another book published recently, Hidden Kingdom: Fantastical Plants of the Western Ghats illustrated with her spectacular artwork. I was roped in thanks to The Wild Heart of India which carried a few essays on forests and trees in the countryside and wilds of India.

Following Harini’s vivacious and insightful lead, our conversation swooped and veered, sallied and swung around trees. On the science of trees, on the connections between people and trees, and on the challenges of trying to portray the majesty and wonder and individuality of trees in art and in words. We spoke of the wood-wide web and the values of trees in our daily lives, of Myristica swamp forests and silk cotton trees, and even of what trees can help us discover about ourselves and our views on citizenship and belonging to place.

Listen on and leave your thoughts and comments below!

Video courtesy: Bangalore Literature Festival

Mizoram: Bamboozled by Land Use Policy

Two spectacular bamboo dances, one celebrated, the other reviled, enliven the mountains of Mizoram, the small northeastern Indian state wedged between Bangladesh and Myanmar. In the first, the colourful Cheraw, Mizo girls dance as boys clap bamboo culms at their feet during the annual Chapchar Kut festival. The festival itself is linked to the other dance: the dance of the bamboos on Mizoram’s mountains brought about by the practice of shifting agriculture, locally called jhum or ‘lo’. In jhum, bamboo forests are cut, burnt, cultivated, and then rested and regenerated for several years until the next round of cultivation, making bamboos vanish and return on the slopes in a cyclic ecological dance of field and fallow, of farmer and forest. While Cheraw is cherished by all, jhum is actively discouraged by the State and the agri-horticulture bureaucracy. Although jhum is a regenerative system of organic farming, Mizoram State, the first in India to enact legislation to promote organic farming, is now pushing hard to eradicate jhum under its New Land Use Policy (NLUP).

… This post appeared in my blog on the Coyotes Network on 14 May 2014 and in the opinion/editorial page of The Hindu on 14 May 2014. Read more in the The Wild Heart of India: Nature and Conservation in the City, the Country, and the Wild.

The Dance of the Bamboos

At first I thought it is the people of Mizoram who use bamboo to perform their celebrated dance, the Cheraw. After months of field research in remote forests of this small state in northeastern India, I know now it is the other way round. Through its intimate influence on the people, it is the bamboo that does its own dance on the mountains of Mizoram.

… This post appeared in my blog on the Coyotes Network on 15 April 2014. Read more in the The Wild Heart of India: Nature and Conservation in the City, the Country, and the Wild. A slightly edited version of this article appeared in opinion/editorial page of The Telegraph on 12 April 2014 under the title Field and Fallow, Farm and Forest.

Bamboo Bonfires and Biodiversity

Can wildlife and slash-and-burn shifting agriculture coexist? This question led me into remote rainforests of northeast India in 1994 for a field research study in Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram. In December 2013, nearly two decades later, I went there again. From the Anamalai hills in south India, I travelled across the country to initiate a comprehensive bird survey in Dampa, including a resurvey of my old field sites. As a prelude to other writings I will post here in the days ahead, I post below an edited version of an article about my work in Dampa in the mid 1990s. This article first appeared in the May/June 2007 issue of Wildlife Conservation magazine (a remarkable periodical published by the Wildlife Conservation Society, which after a print run of over 112 years, perished with the recession in 2009). Original PDF here.

The heat from the fire is intense, even from a hundred metres away. The entire slope is ablaze. Piles of slashed vegetation and tens of thousands of bamboo culms that had sun-dried for three months burn ferociously. The bamboo hisses, crackles, and explodes, audible a mile away. Hot gusts of wind scud the fire upslope, throwing branches and small trees ten metres into the air. High above, unmindful of the billowing fumes, swallows and drongos, in a frenzy of activity, hawk insects. Ash and smoke darken the sky, reducing the sun to a dull orange ball. In twenty minutes, almost as rapidly as it started, the fiery spectacle ends. On the soil, only a blanket of smoldering ash and tree trunks remain.

… This post first appeared in my blog on the Coyotes Network on 31 January 2014. Read more in the The Wild Heart of India: Nature and Conservation in the City, the Country, and the Wild.

Coming home to Danum: A Borneo interlude

The song of the whistling thrush in the cloud-covered mountains. A chill in the air in the hills of the elephants. The river in-between the hills—the Naduar—whose white swells over the rocks he can see through his window, whose rich, sibilant sighs carry through the clear air all the way up to him. To him at his table by the window, from where he hears, he feels, he sees.

… This post first appeared in the Rainforest Revival blog on 30 September 2012. Read the article in Fountain Ink, Coming Home to Borneo.

Of tamarind and tolerance

For centuries, long rows of grand tamarind trees have marked our roadsides, particularly in southern India. The trees have stood like old sentinels, serene and solid through the rush of years. Their sturdy trunks and strong branches have towered over and across the roads, unmindful of buffeting rain and searing sun. Their twigs, festooned with dark green leaves, each with its paired row of little leaflets, have provided an impartial and unstinting shade and shelter for all. In return, the trees only needed a little space by the side of road, to set their roots in, and a space to stretch their arms.

Today, along the roads, men come with axes and saws for the slaughter of these trees. They bring heavy bulldozers and earth movers—construction equipment powered for destruction—to gouge the ancient roots out of the earth. Trees that stood for centuries are brusquely despatched in a matter of hours.

… This essay appeared in The Hindu Sunday Magazine on 17 June 2012. Read more in The Wild Heart of India: Nature and Conservation in the City, the Country, and the Wild.

The pigeon’s passengers

There is a modesty in their conquest of mountains. From tall trees on high ridges, they scan the landscape, their heads turning on long and graceful necks. They have scaled peaks, even surpassed them. Yet, they speak only in soft and hushed tones that resonate among stately trees. For, the imperial pigeons are a dignified lot, keeping the company of great trees.

… This post first appeared in The Hindu Sunday Magazine on 6 May 2012. Read more in The Wild Heart of India: Nature and Conservation in the City, the Country, and the Wild.

Forest of the Aliens

Like the proboscis of a malarial mosquito the Andaman Trunk Road pierces the Jarawa forest. The road carries a steady stream of vehicles, bunched into convoys with guards. By the road are heaps of stones and the claw marks of heavy machinery: the road will soon be wider.

Just beyond, on either side, stretches the home of the Jarawa—lofty rainforests with tall dipterocarps and padauk, myriad trees and lianas, palms, cane, and bamboo. If the forest bears the human mark of the Jarawa, it is subtle and difficult to discern.

… This post first appeared in The Hindu Sunday Magazine on 1 January 2012 and on the NCF blog, EcoLogic, on 27 January 2012. Read more in The Wild Heart of India: Nature and Conservation in the City, the Country, and the Wild.