Special on COP 26
Forests are one of the greatest natural resources on this planet. But our attitude towards them is not friendly. Our greed and callousness have led to deforestation and degradation of vegetation. Tree plantation and afforestation are the only solutions to protect the human race from annihilation. However, it is effective when holistic approaches are adopted. In this article, an attempt is made to highlight the importance of natural forests. It is also argued that plantation and afforestation programs must address the issues of pollution, forest fire, and generation of employment in rural areas.
Forests are one of the Earth’s greatest natural resources. Trees are the manifestation of life, and forests are essential for the existence of all animals, birds, reptiles and insects on the planet. It is known that trees and forests generate oxygen and eliminate many toxic gases from the atmosphere. However, it is not commonly known that an ordinary person consumes 740 kg of oxygen in a year, roughly equivalent to oxygen generated by 7-8 sycamore (goolar) trees.
Besides producing oxygen, trees and forests also provide us with the other essential component of life, i.e., water. Trees and forests are also effective natural cooling systems. They regulate the precipitation and resultantly the rain patterns. Oceans and forests are the major sinks of carbon, and they keep control of global warming. Forests act as a natural barrier during floods, landslides, avalanches, and sand storms. Mangrove forests reduce the wind speed and protect the coastal areas from the devastating effects of cyclones. Forests are also homes to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity .
Environment awareness is inbuilt in human beings. Nature has always been adored in ancient Indian tradition . The importance of the environment for the existence of humans and the universe is well emphasized in Vedic literature . Sri Ram, Sri Krishna and Lord Shiva have always endorsed the protection of the environment.
As explained, forests and trees are a vital part of our lives in more ways than we can imagine and they are our best friends. But our attitude towards them is not friendly. Our greed and callousness are responsible for the deforestation and the degradation of vegetation on this planet. Between 1990 and 2015, the world lost around 129 million hectares of forest, an area equivalent to the size of South Africa . Trees and forests need our immediate attention to protect the human race from annihilation. The one-stop solution to most of our environmental problems is large scale tree plantation and afforestation, and we cannot delay it anymore. It may be noted that a developed society requires more forests and forest products to support the modern lifestyle.
Based on satellite data analysis, India has recorded a 1% jump (8,021 square km) in overall forest area and tree cover between 2015 and 2017 despite population and livestock pressures . However, the green footprint in the northeast region shrunk by 630 square km. The independent experts say that the report “masks ground realities” of forest status by including commercial plantations etc. under its ambit.
The issue of degrading the environment is indeed a global concern, and governments and NGOs are in action to patch up the damage, through tree plantation and afforestation. However, what they lack is a holistic approach. It may be noted that the lack of a holistic approach and a desire to achieve short-term gain may be counterproductive. Any plantation and afforestation programme must focus on the following points:
1. Plantation of indigenous species
Replication of original environmental conditions is of first and foremost importance. Some of the following methodologies may help to restore the same:
· It is desirable to plant indigenous species of trees, shrubs, herbs etc. It is vital for healthy biodiversity and human well-being as well as to support wildlife . The same approach is desirable in a degraded forest. It is also advisable to import soil from a nearby natural forest as it may restore vegetation as well as the biology of the soil. Such action may also attract wildlife. It is worth mentioning that most of the exotic, non-native species have both direct and indirect damaging effects on the ecosystem and biodiversity.
· It is also advisable to dig ponds and rejuvenate water bodies inside the forests and around plantation sites to prevent depletion of the water table. This can restore ecosystems, enhance vegetation and provide water to the wildlife especially during dry seasons.
· The soil test is essential to evaluate the chemistry of the soil, ascertain the extent of damage due to human interference and adopt a suitable plantation strategy. In any plantation programme, even if done for commercial purposes, 25% of the area indispensably be developed as a natural forest. It may keep an option open to restore the natural forest in future. On the other hand, a conscious 10 to 20% vegetation of medicinal value and of direct commercial use may be planted in the natural forest. All possible attempts must be adopted to densify forests and vegetate barren lands.
2. Air pollution
Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, halogen-containing gases, ozone and water vapour are accountable for the greenhouse effect.
· Fossil fuel combustion and the cement industries are responsible for more than 75% of human-caused CO2 emissions. Deforestation, changing agricultural practices etc. are responsible for the rest of the emissions. Effective monitoring mechanism needs to be practised to assess the damage and to develop controlling mechanisms. Urban pollution can be handled successfully by suitable plantation schemes and afforestation in and around industrial settlements.
· Carbon dioxide and water vapour, the two major greenhouse gases, can be controlled effectively by tree plantation. Studies have shown that about 1 million trees can offset 50,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. Bamboo, banyan, pipal, neem, and other indigenous species are effective CO2-suckers. Spruces, pines, and firs are exceptionally effective in absorbing methane, a pollutant about 25 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. It is reported that shirish, bel, jhau, bakul, kadam, palas, neem, etc. are very effective to reduce urban pollution .
3. Soil erosion
Wind and rain are two of the main forces that erode bare soil. Soil loss per hectare in agricultural land is five to ten times more than in forests. Every year, India loses about 5.3 billion tons of precious soil. About 25% of the total area of India (equivalent to 822,000 sq. km) is facing desertification. Another 40% area (1.31 million sq. km) is facing runoff water erosion. Almost 20% of this is under severe erosion and 10% of this land is facing extreme erosion. Tree and vegetation cover plays an important role in reversing soil erosion . The leaves and branches of trees create a flexible cushion that reduces the forces of wind and rain over a large area. The vegetation roots prevent soil compaction, essential for the growth of vegetation. Deep-rooted trees recharge the groundwater and are effective in minimising soil erosion from surface water runoff and flooding. Tree roots tend to grow more deeply and provide resistance to erosion on hillsides and are far more effective than grasses and other small plants.
4. Water pollution
Forests play a critical role in providing clean water. They improve the quantity and quality of water. The world is losing watersheds rapidly, and the scenario is critical in India too. Deforestation in the watersheds contaminates water and leads to higher water treatment costs. In many cases, industries pollute water bodies. The wastewater from industries not only pollutes the water stream but also pollutes the soil and groundwater. The first and foremost step is to take suitable actions to stop it. To a certain extent, suitable vegetation can overcome this problem.
5. Forest fire
Nowadays, forest fires have become very frequent . It can be avoided by following these simple and time-proven methods:
· Controlled burning, also known as hazard reduction burning, before the onset of summer, is a technique effective to prevent major forest fires in dry seasons. This reveals soil layers, results in enhanced seedling vitality and stimulates germination of desirable forest vegetation, thereby renewing the forest.
· The recent trend of monoculture tree plantation is responsible for forest fires. The mixed culture plantation of indigenous species is essential to reduce forest fires.
· The use of dynamites and explosives damages the small and natural water reservoirs. Their frequent use also destabilises rocks and slopes causing landslides. Therefore, the use of explosives in the forests and hills/mountains needs to be avoided.
· Any afforestation programme needs to be coupled with the development and rejuvenation of water bodies. These water bodies act as fire barriers and may prevent the spread of forest fire. As mentioned, this is also required to support wildlife.
6. Herbal tree plantation
There is an awakening all over the world to turn back to health care using herbs, shrubs, and tree products/ parts. Ayurvedic science is an affordable and effective way to cater to this requirement. Continues supply of raw materials is necessary to fulfil the demand for manufacturing Ayurvedic medicines. In the recent past, the exploitation of herbs from the forest has resulted in the degradation of forests and ecological imbalance. As a result, national manufactures are depending on the import of herbs, shrubs, etc. to fulfil their requirements of raw materials. A conscious medicinal plantation within the forest and buffer zone may reduce our dependence on imports.
7. Employment scope
In India, it has been observed that wherever there is a large forest, there is the segregation of tribal and rural populations. Vast populations of tribal and rural people depend on forest resources for their livelihoods. It is also a fact that the forests are also a way of their social and cultural lives. The tree plantation, their protection and maintenance, and forest product harvesting are labour intensive. Harvesting of the forest products, post-harvest processing neither requires skilled manpower nor expensive machinery. The rural population can be engaged effectively in these activities and provide employments to the underemployed villagers. It is also recommended to process the raw herbs and forest products at the harvesting site and villages. This is likely to generate employment in villages, reduce transportation costs and minimise pollution around the main production plants. To protect the interest of villagers, the manufacturers may directly deal with cooperative societies of the villages, without the involvement of middlemen.
It is a gospel that tree plantation and natural forest preservation are necessary to protect life on the planet.