Due to change in customary cultivation practices, focus has now shifted to raising horticultural crops… thus preventing secondary growth on old shifting cultivation patches. This has also led to the decline in forest cover assessed in the state.
Thus, Mizoram’s forest cover may be taking a turn for the worse not because of shifting cultivation but because of the State’s push to establish permanent cultivation, notably horticulture crops such as oil palm.
Two essays of mine based on field experiences in the island of Madagascar appeared recently. In these, I write about lemurs, tourism, conservation, and restoration of rainforests in the island. Here are a couple of teaser extracts and links to the essays.
From ‘Madagascar, Through the Looking Glass’ that appeared in EarthLines in March:
Where are the other trees in the countryside, he wonders? They see only a single palm tree during the drive and stop to photograph it. A few mango trees, Chinese guava, and that is all. Everything else is eucalyptus or wattle or pine. He feels something deep and significant is missing but cannot put his finger on it. Is it the absence of the great forests and other trees that were here once? The missing lemurs, even the giants, and the birds, like the elephant bird Aepyornis maximus – the mythical roc? Is it them? Were they even here, a millenium, two millenia ago? What was here then? He does not know. Does anybody know, he wonders. There appears no trace, no trace at all that he can see or sense, no memory of the past, of life before loss. He has never before seen an entire landscape that has lost its memory.
From ‘The Call of the Indri’ appearing in this month’s issue of Fountain Ink:
The smallest primate in the world is a lemur. At 30 grams, Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur is just a tad heavier than a sparrow. Imagine a miniature tennis ball, covered in a soft pelt of brown and cinnamon and creamy white, which has sprouted delicate limbs and clasping hands, a long furry tail, and a little head that turns to look at you through large, lustrous eyes. Like all other lemurs—including the iconic ring-tailed lemur, the aye-aye and sifakas, dwarf lemurs and sportive lemurs—this lemur’s natural range is confined within the island of Madagascar. The largest living lemur in Madagascar is the indri. At seven kilograms, the indri weighs as much as a healthy, six-month-old human infant. But instead of a crawling or bawling child, imagine a wild primate, dressed in striking black-and-white, capable of prodigious leaps from tree to tree and endowed with an incredibly loud and mesmerising singing voice.
In October 2012, one month before our visit to Madagascar, Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur and the indri, along with four other lemur species, were listed among the world’s 25 most endangered primate species. … All lemurs larger than the indri are already extinct.
“One of the hardest things in politics,” US President Barack Obama said in a recent interview, “is getting a democracy to deal with something now where the payoff is long term or the price of inaction is decades away.” Obama’s words are pertinent not only to the rules proposed on June 2 by his administration to cut future carbon emissions by US fossil-fuel power plants as a step to address climate change. They are also relevant to the other great democracy and its spanking new government on the other side of the planet: India.
It is tough for a single publication or its author to have an impact across nations, cultures, genres, and disciplines. It is tougher still for their appearance on the world stage to spark a social movement, rekindle human values and awareness, and create new mandates for action. And toughest of all is when the author is a woman, a scientist, who must overcome the prejudices of her time−of gender, of notions of progress, of the omnipotence of untrammelled industry−to articulate a clear-eyed, renewed vision of a better world, a cleaner environment, where people do not merely live, but flourish.
If I had to pick one exemplary work from the environmental canon that does this and does it well, it would be the one that burst on the scene on this day, 16 June, all of 52 years ago, in the United States of America and then swiftly encompassed, in its scope and sweep, the rest of the world. The book, SilentSpring, and its author, marine biologist Rachel Carson, are widely credited to be the sparks that lit the fire of the global environmental movement.
Maybe the climate change that the new, improved MoEF is going to take more seriously is change in the climate for business, industry, and investment.
Why should this be a cause for worry? Because, a lot of India’s forests are at stake in the rush to cater to industry. Even the previous government, although labelled as less responsive to industrial needs, actually allowed the clearance of a whopping 702,000 hectares of forest land over the last ten years chiefly for industry, infrastructure projects, and other non-forest uses. The new government already has pending clearances for over 830,000 hectares of forests awaiting its nod. If the MoEF, like earlier, remains under the shadow of the centres of power in the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Commerce and Industry, and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), to name a few, what is the prognosis for India’s environment, forests, and wildlife? If the MoEF is now MoEF-CC, does it just mean everything that MoEF does will be CC-ed to the finance and commerce ministries and the PMO for their blessings?
What adds to my consternation is this video of the new environment minister speaking of the “very vital ministry” that is MoEF:
Behind his apparently well-intentioned words, their appears to lurk some Orwellian doublethink. Rather unwittingly, in something that sounds like a slip-of-the-tongue (or “What is that word I wanted?”), he says that some people think environment protection is ‘antidote’ to development, which he seems to almost disagree with! His last line is chilling.
…some people think that environment protection and development is antidote [sic!], they don’t go hand-in-hand. But I’m firm believer that both can go hand-in-hand. There is no contradiction in both the goals because these serves humanity. After all, poverty is the biggest disaster. So, India needs a window for growth and emissions and other things. ~ Prakash Javadekar
Although he does say that development and environment can go together, and talks of poverty as a disaster, he explains neither and it ends up sounding like the usual platitudes. After India has witnessed a decade of unprecedented forest clearance, after seeing entire landscapes and communities ravaged by mining in Goa and Central India and north-east India, after watching forests and wildlife habitats sundered or submerged by massive infrastructure projects from roads to dams (and even more proposed), it is hardly reassuring to hear the environment minister say, within a day of assuming office, that “India needs a window for growth and emissions and other things.” Unless, of course, this is malreported.
To be fair, it is too early to say anything about the minister or what the ministry will do. The Minister is known to have been actively involved in environmental issues, but also for being critical of the environment ministry earlier for not permitting industrial and infrastructure projects.
Perhaps, the new minister will blaze a different path: one that is not ungood, involves no doublethink, one that it is not all Newspeak. The latter is especially crucial, as the same minister holds another key portfolio: he is also the Minister of Information and Broadcasting in the new government.
Still, it seems like a good idea to keep the antidote of environmental protection handy.
antidote ˈantɪdəʊt/ noun a medicine taken or given to counteract a particular poison.
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).
‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,’ Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
“You all know what a river is,” the biologist says, standing on the banks of the Cauvery, as behind him the river mumbles and roils over low rocks and gleams slick silvery flashes in noontime sun. The man, who has spent a good part of his working life studying rivers and the animals like otters who live in them, is talking as a resource person to a group of scientists and conservationists on a field trip after two days of a conference on river otters in Bangalore city. “The river’s upper course begins in the mountains, the water comes down the slopes, becomes perennial in the middle course,”—the speaker gestures to the river behind him—“and then flows through plains in the lower course before finally entering the sea.” Standing in the audience, listening, he thinks the biologist seems self-assured and competent: he must know, he must be right. And yet, it seems too pat, too succinct, too simple, that a great river like the Cauvery weaving its way through southern India is described thus—as neatly organised and fulfilling as a three-course meal. It seems to suggest that a river is but a line—a watery, purposeful line drawn from mountain to sea. A line.
There are times in your life, when, in an unexpected moment, you come face to face with yourself. It could happen anytime, to anyone. It could happen over your breakfast as aroma and sound—hot coffee swirling in your cup and a dosa sizzling on the stove—suddenly release a sensory cascade of recollections as history intersects happenstance. It could happen in a memory or a dream, where past and present merge into a fused and frozen time indistinct, even, from the future. It could happen while you walk down a street and momentarily catch your own full-length reflection in a shining, shop-front glass. In that moment, the person who you were confronts the one who you have become. Chances are, it might catch you unawares.
How far can one keep going straight up an apparently unscaled peak without falling off a precipice? How far can the march of the human footprint on Earth continue without exceeding planetary boundaries and leading to environmental catastrophe? In an important recent paper in Nature, strangely reminiscent of the publication of The Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome in 1972, a group of scientists poses and develops tentative markers of planetary boundaries being reached or exceeded.
The paper in Nature, an accompanying editorial, the seven commentaries from leading experts, available here, are worth a read for anyone who wants an overview of what the major human impacts on the planet are and where they are headed. Specifically, the authors deal with the following nine issues:
stratospheric ozone depletion
the global cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus
atmospheric aerosol loading (to be quantified)
chemical pollution (to be quantified)
The paper suggests that three boundaries related to climate change, biological diversity, nitrogen and phosphorous dumping into the biosphere, may already have been exceeded. A brief summary of the findings with relevant links is also available here at the website of the Stockholm Resilience Centre where the lead author Johan Rockström is based. The seven commentaries along with some other recent research highlights are also available here. The real meat of the paper is actually in a parallel publication in the journal Ecology and Society. Although this paper is in press, it is available here and this contains the details of the issues at stake, the underlying rationales, and references to the scientific literature based on which the conclusions are drawn.
In our context, given India’s demographic profile and dependence on agriculture, the aspects related to freshwater use and nitrogen-phosphorous cycles are really worthy of note. Water shortages in the country and the severe depletion of groundwater were recently again in the news following a paper in Nature. Anthropogenic nitrogen loading is already affecting our terrestrial ecosystems, coastal and marine areas, and rivers. Reporting high values of dissolved and sediment-bound nitrogen in Indian rivers, partly due to excessive fertiliser use and associated run-off, the authors of the last study grimly conclude: “Hence, our freshwater aquatic systems can no longer be considered natural, at least with respect to nitrogen transport.”
A quick survey of the debate emerging from the papers by Rockström and colleagues indicates two main questions are being asked (among others spurred by the publications). First, is it sensible to set a tipping-point benchmark, however scientifically tenuous it may be given the current state of knowledge? There is concern that this might cause complacence among policy makers and administrators, who may avoid responding to the situation until the benchmark is reached or exceeded. The second is the issue of benchmark itself: for instance, in the case of biodiversity loss. The authors of the study use extinction rate as a measure of biodiversity loss. In Table 1, they indicate a pre-industrial value of rate of extinction at 0.1 to 1 species per million species per year. The current rate of extinction is >100 species per million per year and the proposed boundary is 10 species per million per year. What makes this an acceptable boundary or rate of loss of species?
The overall picture that emerges is alarming, to say the least. The climate crisis is familiar; our newspapers are full of it now. Other concerns appear less commonly in the media. For instance, that our oceans, which absorb some 25% of human CO2 emissions, are undergoing acidification at a rate 100 times higher than at any time in the past 20 million years. This makes a whole range of marine organisms, such as corals and molluscs, susceptible to corrosion of their shells (made of calcium carbonate in the form of aragonite). The decline of aragonite-forming organisms and coral reefs could substantially alter marine ecosystems. Another global concern is that of human tampering of the planetary nitrogen cycles. Human activities now input more reactive nitrogen into the planet than all natural processes combined. As a large part of this enters the biosphere, it alters terrestrial ecosystems, as well as freshwater and marine ecosystems.
The paper will doubtless spur more discussions and research into the various benchmarks and their utility in tracking the human footprint. Despite the debates and shortcomings, one real value of the paper as it appears to me is that it brings into one page—onto one figure even, superimposed ominously on the globe—an assessment and visualisation of the nine-fold stranglehold that humans as a species have on Earth. Looking at it we have to keep asking: is the human journey reaching the edges of the Earth?