LAST WORD -- Up in Smoke

Posted by: Bittu Sahgal on

Depending on how you perceive the world, this image, shot in
April 2009 just outside Maharashtra's Navegaon National Park, could
represent either hope and sustenance - or despair and destruction.

The leaves of Diospyros melanoxylon - known as tendu in India - are responsible for putting food in the bellies of almost 10 million Indian families. Adults and children of tribal and forest-dwelling communities are involved in the collection of leaves from forests, after which a well-oiled system distributes, dries, processes and markets the tendu patta to middlemen, who in turn sell them to bidi manufacturers who use them to wrap tobacco to make the ‘poor man's smoke'.

And here lies the ‘despair and destruction' rub.

The collection of leaves causes immense harm to national health, it
is at the end of the day a cigarette with all the attendant health hazards.
Additionally, tendu leaf collection visits unimaginable ecological harm
on forests, which must be burned to access tendu leaves and that are
disturbed when thousands of people enter fragile wildlife habitats.

Generally found in dry deciduous forests, the tendu tree is a vital
source of food for a range of insects, birds and animals that gorge on its
leaves and fruit, which is sweet when ripe. In undisturbed forests, the
fallen leaves also help protect the forest floor from the harsh impact of
frost. A host of decomposers and creatures that live in the leaf litter die
when the mass collection of leaves takes place. This triggers an ecological
spiral that ends up in breeding failures of species up and down the food
chain. The most visible symptom is the absence or rarity of indicator
megafauna such as tigers, leopards, bears, wild dogs and hyaenas.

Is there a way out? A magical win-win? Something that still offers
employment to millions, yet does not destroy the source of life - our forests?


Our first objective must be to break the deadlock between
wildlifers/forest officers and social activists/forest communities, which
benefits neither people, nor parks. Two things must be paramount:

1. Forest communities living just outside our Protected Area network
must become the first beneficiaries of any resources, or wealth that
flows from forests. 2. Livelihoods must not deplete forests, but enhance
them, by encouraging natural ecosystem regeneration. In the process
we must find a way to guarantee dignity and employment for
something like 10 million people living just outside our 500 or so
peninsular Protected Areas. We must prevent them from being used
as conduits for urban markets whose demand for forest biomass is
endless. Instead, we should use the genius of forest dwellers to restore
natural forests that gave birth to their cultures.
Premise 1: Possibly 25 per cent of all India's greenhouse gas emissions
are a result of deforestation. Arresting these emissions is possibly the
quickest and least painful way for India to demonstrate its
determination to reduce carbon emissions.

Premise 2: Without waiting for money to flow from the industrial
north, India has the strength, resilience and genius to employ millions
of her people as "climate warriors" appointed to sequester and store
atmospheric carbon through the natural regeneration and outward
expansion of the forest ecosystems next to which they live.

REDD: The United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing
Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing
Countries (UN-REDD Programme) could form a bridge between
wildlife and social activists in India provided we agree that instead of
farming and livestock grazing, people living in communities abutting
parks and sanctuaries be paid to restore the forest ecosystems, on their
own lands. Even before waiting for foreign income from REDD, a
basket of benefits can be put together ranging from NREG, CAMPA,
Tourism revenues (as owners with a share based on occupancy, not as
menial employees), foundations, Khadi Gram Udyog Kendra, Flood
and Drought relief funds, etc.

Food for thought: Instead of bajra or other minor/secondary crops on
marginal and failed farms, where conflict with herbivores, insects,
birds and carnivores is perpetual, landholders could become ‘ecosystem
farmers' who are not only guaranteed food and economic security, but
are recognised as respected solution providers who are helping the
planet fight climate change. Since the idea is to implement this outside
the PA network, it does not involve shifting or relocation.
The benefits of ecosystem restoration would be tremendous,
ranging from biodiversity enhancement, improved water regimes,
enhanced food security and, of course, the possibility of making global
claims for sequestering and storing carbon. The vast bulk of lands on
which this initiative would be implemented happen to be catchment
areas of dams (almost 3,000 large dams in India) and this would
further serve to enhance both power and irrigation outputs.

Or we could let everything go up in smoke. 

First published in Sanctuary Asia, August 2009